Sociology of Environment – Not Your Normal College Course

I love teaching college students.  Absolutely adore it.  Mid-January is here, and for me this means a new academic semester has begun and teaching resumes.  This time around, I have the pleasure of teaching Sociology of Environment and Natural Resources.  My 40-some students and I discuss some of the potential reasons behind environmental degradation – overpopulation, overconsumption, global production systems.  We also spend a quarter of the class learning about and analyzing global environmental justice case studies.  After units on climate change, energy policy, and agricultural systems, the end of the course focuses on potential solutions and student projects.

Having taught this course before, I’ve learned the basic rhythms of a course wherein students think not just about an abstract subject matter but something different, something bigger and yet more personal.  Instead of teaching statistics, for example, I’m asking them to question their orientation to the natural world.  Thus, this is one of the few courses in which students feel compelled to analyze their behavior and grapple with whether those behaviors should change.  More than any other course I’ve taught, this one is the most challenging and rewarding.  Challenging because, especially at this particular university, I encounter many students who are quite conservative and think of environmentalism as a strictly political issue (and, at that, a liberal one of which they want no part).  At the same time, teaching this class generates tangible rewards; when worldview barriers are overcome, breakthroughs for students can be life-altering.   About 30 of the 40 students will think about what they read and perhaps reduce their consumption temporarily or think about driving less and biking more.  But in a smaller portion of the class, I can watch deep-seated philosophical changes take place, something I have yet to experience in other classes of mine like Social Statistics or Social Psychology.

A vivid example comes to mind.  One student in the last session of this course began the semester with his head firmly planted on the desk.  He showed up for class most days, but within about ten minutes his head would be buried in his crooked arm.  Yes, he was that student that, for instructors, creates worry and unease, even when the rest of the class may give you their undivided attention. Despite my gentle urging, this behavior continued on through February and into March.  In March, we began reading about environmental justice cases around the world.  Stories of communities touched by toxic contamination from extraction activities and production facilities.  Many times, people in affected communities will notice their contamination, resultant illnesses or ailments, and begin long-term grassroots activism to fight the extraction, the facility, or at least get basic answers for their families and neighbors.

These stories, in turns out, brought my sleepy student back to life.  During those class periods, and for most of them that followed, this particular student transformed before my eyes.  He became alert, engaged, and inquisitive, often staying after class to ask questions or discuss a particular case study.  Through those conversations, I learned this student was from a town in Utah where coal mining was the main economic activity.  He described being raised in a community where a strange silver dust covered most cars, homes, and park equipment.  He also described a debilitating condition he had, in which the discs of his spine were being slowly crushed, for reasons no doctors has been able to explain.  He told me that many of his neighbors and family members suffered from similar and other ailments.  Apparently, the coal processing plant near his home discharged methyl mercury, and people in his community noticed widespread health problems that many residents, according to my student, saw as related to coal processing.  The case studies we were reading and the class discussions my student shared with peers moved him so deeply because they seemed to describe his own experiences as they unfurled.  He encouraged his mother to join with some of her neighbors to conduct a health study and get access to grant monies for further research, and by the time the class ended, the Utah Department of Health was looking into the local claims of illness and chronic conditions.  Any concrete outcome may take many years, but the beginning seems encouraging.

While events such as these are certainly not common, I begin each semester with the hope that Sociology of Environment will change my students’ perspectives on the natural world.  At the very least, I hope it transforms environmentalism from a political issue into a deeply personal and broadly human issue for them.  From my experience, this happens the most fluidly and meaningfully in a classroom where we can all interact and where organic discussions can develop (this may even be a topic for a future blog).  Though each class has its distinct personality, here’s to hoping that this semester sparks critical thinking and a new environmental ethic for my students.  I will keep you posted….

Lessons in Community-Based Conservation from Africa

The WRDC is pleased to introduce Ed Meyer as one of our bloggers. Mr. Meyer oversaw the Utah Governor’s rural economic development programs for 25 years before retiring to Kanab, UT. Currently he contracts with Southern Utah University to provide entrepreneur support in Kane County. He runs his own consulting firm dealing with rural incentives, serves on the Kanab City Council, and serves on the board of a local non-profit that promotes events that incorporate education, business and the arts.

Without further ado, here’s Ed.

Last fall a marvelous film called “Milking the Rhino” was screened in Kanab as part of the Southern Utah Documentary Film Festival.  After the film, I had the honor of facilitating a discussion with the film’s co-producer Jeanne McGill.  Though the film is about Africa’s Himba Tribe in Namibia and the Maasai Tribe in Kenya, the land management model they are using is one we should consider here in the American West.

First let me set the stage by explaining that the Himba and Maasai have traditionally survived largely through cattle ranching.  Though they raise their cattle in different ways for different purposes, these African tribes share a common economic bond with the West’s cattlemen.  They also face a similar challenge in that they have traditionally been denied access to adjacent lands.  In their case, these lands have been locked up in game reserves patrolled by armed guards.  Historically these guards have shot tribesmen who touch one foot inside the reserves.  Though the situation in the American West is certainly not as dramatic, ranchers are regularly being forced from public lands, largely due to environmental challenges. Another similarity is that the Himba and Maasai have often lost livestock to lions and other predators that are protected inside the reserves.  Certainly this draws a comparison to issues in the American West such as the reintroduction of the wolf and other predatory species.

In recent years, the governments of Namibia and Kenya have recognized that the ongoing conflicts with tribal cattlemen are counterproductive.  They have also realized the tremendous market for eco-tourism and the potential value this new economic opportunity could provide for the Himba and Maasai.  In order to take advantage of this opportunity, they have implemented a management tool we might consider in the American West called community-based conservation.

What the African governments have done is create conservation districts incorporating the lands within the traditional game reserves and allowed the local tribesmen to make management decisions.  Typically these decisions might address issues like whether predators that threaten the cattle should be relocated for the benefit of eco-tourists or whether they need to be destroyed, perhaps by a hunter willing to pay a premium.  Another example was whether portions of the game reserve that had previously been off limits for cattle grazing should be opened during times of drought.  The film’s title “Milking the Rhino” comes from the decision tribesmen were forced to make when white rhinos were tramping fields and destroying crops.  The tribesmen recognized that the white rhino was one of the most popular animals for the ecotourist and decided to relocate it in hopes of “milking the rhino” for tourist dollars.   While the jury is still out regarding how effective these community-based conservation districts will be, it is significant that each tribe now has a new eco-tourism lodge created through collaboration with professional managers.  The lodges provide jobs for natives and the profits are shared with the tribes.  Profits are negotiated with the tribes and, if the managers can’t come to an agreement, the tribe has the authority to order them from the land.

I’d like to ask the readers of this blog whether they can share examples of how a similar model has been tried in the American West.  Before you answer, let me clarify my request.  I’m not looking for examples where the federal government has created advisory groups to provide input or even grassroots projects the federal government allows to occur because they are consistent with their management plan.  What I am looking for are examples where the federal government has actually turned management of federal lands over to groups of local stakeholders to manage for some purpose.

I understand that there are reasons it would be difficult to implement community-based conservation in the American West.  I expect to hear all kinds of reasons why it can’t be done.  Quite honestly, I’m tired of hearing why things can’t be done.  What I hope to see are examples where something similar is being done and suggestions of what might have to occur to make it happen given our unique public lands models.

If you would like to learn more about the Himba, the Maasai and community-based conservation, I encourage you to visit http://MilkingTheRhino.org.  A related site is www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/milk.html where you can download an outstanding study guide based on the video.  Finally, if you would like Jeanne McGill to speak at an event, please email me at ed@kekanab.com and I can provide contact information.

Images used with permission granted by the filmmaker.

From a Michigan Farm to the Last Frontier

Greetings to new and long-time friends and acquaintances,

I’m excited that the folks at Western Rural Development Center (WRDC) invited me to share my thoughts and ideas in a regular monthly blog. Since many readers won’t know me I’ll start with a brief introduction that I hope will help position me as someone who has something meaningful (and worth reading) to say about rural communities. I was born in rural Michigan and raised on a small farm. I attended a one-room schoolhouse and had the same teacher for kindergarten through second grade. Fortunately I liked Mrs. Horten and I think she was a really good teacher. Mrs. Horten returned to teach us again when we reached sixth grade . . . did she REALLY like our cohort so much that she wanted one more teaching experience with us? In seventh grade my 18 classmates and I were bussed about an hour from our farming community across town to help desegregate an inner-city school in Lansing. We were pulled from our rural homogeneous farming community and bussed to a school where the majority of students were urban Latino and Black youths – although neither of those terms was common back then, and this language certainly wasn’t what I heard in the halls and on the school grounds! The two-year experience substantially supplemented the education we received in the classroom. We each lived and experienced desegregation in a very personal way.

The long bus ride every morning also meant getting up very early since I milked our three cows before school! I’ve always explained that it was this chore that resulted in my love for the early hours.  (I’m still an early riser, often awake at 4:00 AM.) Ninth grade brought another big change – I attended high school closer to home, surrounded by working farms, and graduated in a class of 69 students – a small fraction of the students that had been in my inner-city junior high!

After graduation I attended a small private college in rural Olivet Michigan for two years, mostly on athletic scholarships thanks to Title IX. The passage and implementation of Title IX, much like desegregation, was an event and movement far larger than me but both had significant direct effects in framing my life at a young age. After a short “time-out” I transferred to the University of Michigan and after two years of classes graduated from the School of Natural Resources. While attending college I worked during the summers as a Michigan state park ranger, and it was here that my professional interest in recreation, parks, tourism and special landscapes took root. After completing my Bachelor’s degree I moved to Alaska and working as a seasonal park ranger, this time with Alaska State Parks. I spent 7 years in Haines – a community of around 1200 residents. During the “off-season” I frequently worked as a substitute teacher in the local schools. I have great stories of my time in Haines – building two cabins, and living without running water or electricity for seven years. I hope to weave some of these stories into future blogs.

After being promoted to regional manager, in 1983 my job was moved to Juneau, Alaska’s capital . With the exception of Juneau, Southeast Alaska communities are all small and rural with no other community (there are 31) having more that 9,000 residents. Only three of the 31 communities have road access. The remainder can only be accessed by water and air and only a few of them have road access to another community. My home in Juneau lies within the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest national forest at 17 million acres. Eighty percent of the land in Alaska’s panhandle, as the Southeast Region also is known, is within the national forest, the world’s largest temperate rainforest.

Like many communities across the western United States, resource extraction activities, including timber harvesting and processing and mining, are important to the economies of Southeast Alaska communities. Tourism and commercial and charter sport fishing are important for several communities. For example Juneau hosts approximately one million cruise ship visitors from May through September every year (TravelJuneau.com). Each of these economic activities generates controversy that cycles in and out of the news over time.

Oops, I got carried away with introducing Southeast Alaska and forgot to finish MY story. In 1989 I quit my job with the State of Alaska and moved to Seattle. A big change for a small town girl! I had been accepted into the PhD program at the University of Washington, College of Forestry. I immediately jumped into my first “research” study exploring the potential social effects of off-shore oil and gas development off of the coast of Washington and Oregon. I spent an enjoyable summer learning how to design research questions and studies, conduct interviews, and develop surveys. I traveled from Forks, Washington to Bandon, Oregon interviewing local residents and visitors about the importance and value of the area to them. This experience evolved into a life-long interest and professional research focus on “sense of place” and attachment to special places. The oil and gas study was abandoned and that’s a story for another time.

When “my” study was cancelled I was fortunate to arrange work with the Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station (PNW), Seattle Forestry Sciences Laboratory, working on a social science research team called the People and Natural Resources Program. Over the past 20 years (my 20 year anniversary is this month!) my research topics have included recreation, tourism, public participation, resource planning, sense of place and place attachment, community resilience and community capacity, community wildfire mitigation and preparedness, volunteering, partnerships and collaboration, and a variety of other topics. (Published research papers are available at Treesearch by typing “kruger” into the Author box, or searching on Google.) While working full time for PNW I completed my program at the University of Washington in 1996 (I’ll write more about my dissertation research experience in a future blog) and, finding that there was plenty more to learn, I enrolled in a Master’s Degree program in Whole System Design and Organization System Renewal at Antioch University in Seattle. I finished my Antioch program in the summer of 2003 and moved back to Juneau later that year.

Since returning to Juneau I have enjoyed working with fellow PNW employees at the Juneau Forestry Sciences Laboratory, Alaska Region Forest Service employees, communities on the Tongass and the Chugach National Forests, several State and Federal agencies, and Alaska Native communities and organizations. I have many stories to share and lessons I’ve learned that I hope will provide a springboard for our virtual discussion!

In closing, my current passion is individual and community health and wellness. I have many ideas for projects that engage community organizations and groups in developing healthier communities and research studies that demonstrate the importance and value of spending time outdoors and being in nature. As individuals I think we can each benefit from information that helps us make more informed personal choices and our decision makers need better information in order to make informed decisions on our behalf. If you haven’t read the September 2010 issue of Rural Connections (Volume 5, Issue 1 – 10MB PDF) please take time to read it now.

In closing, welcome to 2011! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I look forward to hearing from you and continuing our conversation over the coming year.

Linda Kruger is a social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station in Juneau, Alaska.