Partners in the Parks

It's May, which means that it's National Parks time. My good friend and colleague, Matt Nickerson (who directs the Honors Program at SUU where I teach) and I have been putting together a program called Partners in the Parks. Each spring we take honors students out into the wild lands of Southwest Utah for what we call an Academic Adventure Program. Our focus is the National Parks system. We teach honors students about what a National Park is, how it is managed, who does the work, what it takes to maintain it.

Matt and I were recently awarded a grant from the National Parks Service to expand and document the program. In a year, we've gone from one pilot program in Bryce Canyon to six programs nationwide. Earlier this spring we collaborated with our friend Kevin Bonine, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Arizona, to take a group of Honors Program faculty from around the country on an experiential education training program along the US/Mexico border. We traveled from the saguaro country down to the Sea of Cortez.

This spring we started a series of three projects, starting with Zion National Park, followed by one in Bryce Canyon. We have one still to do on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and then one to assist with on the east coast in Acadia National Park in Maine.

The numbers were small on this first Zion program, which was good because we really needed to get going on a new approach for us: letting go. We had two new leaders to train and observe. We were used to doing these kinds of projects on our own but we knew that we just couldn't sustain this on our own, not growing the program to the size that we imagined giving coverage to the National Parks Program as a whole. That was the big challenge we hadn't imagined.

It worked okay. What was most exciting was learning to manage the administrative parts of these activities with the on-the-ground aspects. We also needed to make sure that the integrity of the program was maintained, which meant that Matt and I had to know what it was, and we had to communicate it effectively to the new leaders. The Zion project went off reasonably well. I think participants really got the main idea of the whole program: study the parks by being in the parks.

Bryce Canyon was very interesting. After two days of really scorching temperatures (upper 80s and low 90s, which is hot for that elevation), the temperature dropped something like 40 degrees). We hiked in snow flurries. At night it froze, in the day, it came up a few degrees but not much. It was a real test for everyone, including the two of us, who had to learn how to run one of these programs when nothing went as planned (and almost nothing did). This was a completely different set of challenges. We also released more control and only joined the group at the half way point, for the backcountry hiking. At the same time a project in Manhattan rolled out, completely under the direction of other leaders. Two of the three on that project had been on projects with Matt and I, but they designed and executed this one on their own. It sounds like it was thrilling.

The final project is one that Matt and I are doing alone, with no other support staff. We're heading into the really remote Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, which is along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon between St. George, Utah and the Colorado River. As remote as it is (we need to bring extra spare tires, fuel, and a satellite phone), we'll be staying in a pretty nice research facility on Mt. Trumbull. No real loss of creature comforts there. No backpacking either. I think the solitude will be rapturous.

More on that when we finish.