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 summers Alaska field course shared three weeks of unforgettable
|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:
Ive 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
Alaskas environmental issues, and really getting to know them
in the place were 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 its 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,
For the rest of the country, Alaska is a special place thats
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 dont realize
is that for many Alaskans, its 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 todays 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 Ive ever had,
said Edsall, who took Kelsos 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 its a
perfect place to study these issues, he said. Many of Alaskas
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.
Kelsos 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 wont find
these listed on the web, he said.
The course focuses on Alaskas diverse ecosystems, its people,
and its environmental public policy. Cosponsored by the Denali Institute,
a nonprofit education and conservation group based in Alaskas
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, Were not just
here taking a class, were 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 parks position,
said Fast, who marveled in retrospect at the opportunity to discuss
policy with the parks 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 dont have an outlet for
processing what theyre learning, they lose a lot of it,
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. Its an immersion field course that brings
it all together for students--natural history, public policy, faculty
mentorship. Its the best of what UCSC offers.
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