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September 22, 2003

Alaska field course gets rave reviews

By Jennifer McNulty

From gazing in awe at a mother grizzly bear frolicking with her cubs to meeting with Native tribal advocates and business leaders, students in this summer’s Alaska field course shared three weeks of unforgettable experiences.

Students in the Alaska field course gathered data on the distribution and abundance of plants in the subarctic, alpine tundra of Denali National Park. Photo: John Anderson

“I’ve tried to explain the experience to family members. It was amazing,” said Arwen Edsall, an environmental studies major at UC Santa Cruz who participated in the course after graduating in June. “Spending time with other students who are interested in Alaska’s environmental issues, and really getting to know them in the place we’re talking about, was incredible.”

For the second consecutive year, the class offered students from around the country an immersion course in the natural history and public policy challenges facing The Last Frontier. The course combines travel, lectures, field research, and reflection. Five UCSC students were among the 16 students from nine universities who participated this year.

“Alaska is a great case study because it’s a microcosm of development in the West, compressing the western states’ 150 years of natural resource and environmental history into less than 50 years,” said Dennis Kelso, an assistant professor of environmental studies at UCSC and coholder of the Pepper-Giberson Chair in Environmental Studies. Kelso cotaught the course with Jenny Anderson, a lecturer and program development coordinator for the UCSC Environmental Studies Department, and Robert Barni, a lecturer at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota.

“For the rest of the country, Alaska is a special place that’s worthy of protection because of its ecosystems and environmental quality,” said Kelso, former Alaska commissioner of environmental conservation. “But what people in the ‘Lower 48’ don’t realize is that for many Alaskans, it’s the last frontier--a place to cash in by extracting as much resource wealth as possible. In this course, we get an opportunity to look at that ragged edge of disagreement.”

From marine mammals to glaciers, and tourism to oil production, Alaska is a land of riches--and therein lies the rub, said Kelso, who brings nearly two decades of experience in environmental and natural resource policy for the state of Alaska to the course. Kelso was the top state official who oversaw the cleanup of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. He joined the UCSC faculty in 1999.

“The current issues of resource management and public lands have direct parallels to what happened in California,” said Kelso. “The complexities of politics and the challenges of environmental stewardship are the same. But unlike today’s California, there is not much political will in Alaska to protect the environment or to show restraint in resource exploitation.”

The course included 33 speakers and several days packed with lectures. “It was a lot of information to take in in a short time, but it was incredible to be thinking about all these things while seeing it all around us,” said Edsall, 22, a geographic information system (GIS) consultant for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Denny is the most inspiring professor I’ve ever had,” said Edsall, who took Kelso’s spring-quarter seminar about Alaska before the field course. “He has so much life experience, and he makes everybody feel they can be just as powerful as him.”

A specialist in coastal and marine environments, Kelso is currently investigating the changes in wild salmon fisheries since the advent of commercial salmon aquaculture. “Alaska has more miles of coastline than all the rest of the United States put together, so it’s a perfect place to study these issues,” he said. “Many of Alaska’s fisheries and coastal areas face challenges similar to those confronting California, Oregon, and Washington.”

Kelso was a natural to reinvigorate a connection between UCSC and Alaska that was formed in the mid-1970s by founding environmental studies professor Richard “Dick” Cooley. For years, Cooley coordinated the Alaska Field and Internship Program. Cooley, who died in 1994, authored the 1963 book Politics and Conservation: The Decline of the Alaska Salmon that Kelso still uses today.

Kelso’s courses prepare students for internships in Alaska and provide many undergraduates with the inspiration for a senior thesis project. Nine UCSC students have been selected for internships since Kelso and Anderson began offering the field course in 2002, two have written senior theses, and two others have landed permanent jobs in Alaska. The internships, Kelso added, are unique opportunities that are tailored to individual UCSC students. “You won’t find these listed on the web,” he said.

The course focuses on Alaska’s diverse ecosystems, its people, and its environmental public policy. Cosponsored by the Denali Institute, a nonprofit education and conservation group based in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve, the course gives participants unprecedented access to top state officials, researchers, conservation activists, and public policy leaders. Capping the course is a five-day visit to the park itself, where students marvel at the wildlife and participate in a longitudinal study of the abundance, distribution, and phenology of selected plants at three alpine tundra sites. Their findings complement efforts under way in other locations to evaluate the potential effects of global change.

“To know that we were helping compile data that will possibly show the long-term effects of global warming was really exciting,” said Tiffany Fast, a senior majoring in environmental studies who took the course. “It was great to feel like, ‘We’re not just here taking a class, we’re actually helping.’”

A highlight of the trip for Fast was a discussion with Paul R. Anderson, the superintendent of Denali National Park, over the permissibility of snowmobiles in the park. “We were all eating dinner together, and I just really wanted clarification about the park’s position,” said Fast, who marveled in retrospect at the opportunity to discuss policy with the park’s top official.

The intensive course is intended to provide such memorable experiences and to inspire further study, said Jenny Anderson, who spent a year developing the curriculum for the course with Kelso and Kristin Siemann, executive director of the Denali Institute. Anderson designed daily activities to encourage reflection and assimilation of the course material, an element that enhances learning by making students more than receptors of information. “If the students don’t have an outlet for processing what they’re learning, they lose a lot of it,” she noted.

With 20 percent of the land mass of the United States and the largest community of native people in the country, Alaska is “an important place for our students to work,” said Anderson.

“Working with someone like Denny, who loves the place and is doing research there, allows students to get involved at a very deep level,” said Anderson. “It’s an immersion field course that brings it all together for students--natural history, public policy, faculty mentorship. It’s the best of what UCSC offers.”

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