Harbingers of Spring/Summer, National Trails Day and National Get Outdoors (GO) Day

Western Skunk Cabbage, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Linda Kruger

Western Skunk Cabbage, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Linda Kruger

One sure sign of spring is the appearance of Western Skunk Cabbage, also known as simply Skunk Cabbage or Swamp Lantern (Lysichiton americanus in the west and Symplocarpus foetidus in the east), pushing its way up through the snow to claim the title of the earliest sentinel of spring. Skunk Cabbage, in addition to its beautiful bright yellow hood, or spathe, and large green leaves is fascinating because of its ability to melt the snow in order to make its way to the sun. For about 12-14 days in late winter it consumes oxygen as it breaks down starch stored in its roots. This process generates enough heat for the plant to maintain a temperature of 36 degrees as it melts its way through the snow.

Hummingbirds also signal the arrival of spring when they return from their winter homes in Panama and southern Mexico and fly around in search of hummingbird feeders and colorful hanging fuchsia baskets that keep them nourished until the wildflowers burst with blossoms. Arctic terns also have returned, flying in from Southern South America and Antarctica, making the longest migration of any bird or animal, traveling over 12,000 miles to nesting sites in Alaska. In Juneau, about 80 terns gather near Mendenhall Lake and will stay in the area until they fly south again in mid-August. They can be seen through binoculars from the shore and through spotting scopes from the Tongass National Forest Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. Looking through spotting scopes from the visitor center or from locations on Douglas Island or downtown Juneau we also watch bears that have come out of hibernation and mountain goats and their kids making their way into the lower elevations in search of tender spring vegetation.

Fiddlehead Ferns, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Fiddlehead Ferns, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Local human residents also venture out in search of spring greens, especially the tender, succulent curled heads of the fiddlehead ferns that are so yummy sautéed in butter or added to a salad. We also see the lowest tides of the year, providing an opportunity to explore what the winter storms have deposited on local beaches and tide flats.

Spring, with summer hot on its heels, has arrived. The Carnival Spirit, the first cruise ship of the year, with many more to follow in its wake, arrived on Friday May 6 bringing 2,000 visitors into our community. Close to a million visitors will arrive by ship over the next four months. The 2011 cruise season will end when the Century, the final ship of the year, sets sail at 8:30 PM on September 24. Between now and then visitors rule downtown Juneau and frequent many of our trails and favorite places we go to enjoy good weather. On clear days they seem to own the skies as well, with helicopters and float planes a constant presence overhead. The helicopters flying visitors up and around the Juneau Icefield are known around town as the “mosquito fleet” for the buzzing sound they make overhead, often five or six in a row, as they fly from their pad near the airport up and over the Mendenhall Glacier.

Cruise Ship, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Cruise Ship, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Three ships arrived on Wednesday May 11 and they made their presence known long before they docked. You didn’t have to see them to know they were arriving and you didn’t have to open your eyes and look out the window to know the fog was thick. In fact, when I did look out I couldn’t see the ships through the fog, and they couldn’t see each other. As a result, starting at the tender hour of 4:00 A.M. , they began sounding their fog horns every five minutes, blanketing the town with a loud noise that reverberated from the mountains behind the city across to the mountains on Douglas Island where I live and back again. It was like having an obnoxious alarm clock that went off every five minutes and no way to turn it off! Finally the ships docked safely, their horns silenced and the fog lifted to disclose a beautiful sunny day to be enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

Spring events trip over each other as we transition from winter to summer. There is the Juneau Audubon Society bird watching cruise to Berners Bay, just north of Juneau, in April. We barely have time to catch our breath after the week-long Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau, also in April, when Juneau Jazz and Classics begins its three week run of jazz, blues, and classical music concerts. There are free concerts at lunch time in the State Office Building and free and reasonably priced evening concerts at a variety of venues around town, including local churches, the Juneau Arts and Culture Center and the Centennial Hall convention center. Guest artists (always an amazing line-up) also perform for students in area schools and teach workshops while they are in town. Juneau Jazz and Classics also sponsors a free Saturday of fun and music at the University of Alaska’s Auke Lake Campus. This year the event was on May 14, 2011. The Second Annual Maritime Festival was happening in downtown Juneau on the same day. (It was an amazingly beautiful day!) The Southeast Master Gardeners Association held their Annual Plant Sale May 7, the same morning that brave runners dashed across the mudflats between Douglas Island and the Juneau airport in the Spring Tide Scramble, sponsored by Southeast Road Runners.

Farther north the Nenana Ice Classic has come to an end for another year with the ice going out on the Tanana River on May 4, 2011 at 4:24 PM. As their reward for guessing the date and time of the breakup 22 winners will split the $338,062 purse and enjoy the celebrity of being this year’s winners.

Looking into the future, Saturday June 4 is National Trails Day. This day celebrates America’s 200,000 miles of trails, and the boundless energy of trail supporters and volunteers. The American Hiking Society and sponsors Backpacker Magazine, Columbia, Eastern Mountain Sports, Fetzer, Merrell, The North Face and partners REI and American Park Network are hosting over two thousand events around the country. The 2011 theme is Made With All Natural Ingredients. The American Hiking Society encourages everyone to get outdoors and to invite someone new to the outdoors to come along. For more information or to find an event near you go to www.AmericanHiking.org.

June 11 is National Get Outdoors (GO) Day celebrating America’s Great Outdoors and encouraging kids and their families to explore the outdoors together. Lead by the USDA Forest Service and the American Recreation Coalition this effort builds partnerships between public and private sector interests. The focus of GO day is to influence Americans, especially youth, to participate in outdoor activities and to make outdoor recreation a part of healthy lifestyles. For more information about GO Day events go to www.nationalgetoutdoorsday.org.

How will YOU celebrate National Trails Day and National Get Outdoors Day?

The West’s Silent Spaces

By Stephanie Malin

Having just completed my dissertation, I feel a little lost. Strange, I know. I longed for this day while I sat staring at mounds of data, a computer screen, and the ticking clock. I am certainly doing more cleaning, organizing, and cooking than I thought humanly possible, and my work out routine is back to normal. Thinking back on the writing process, though, I’ve realized that one of the things that got me through the process – aside from my patient husband, insightful major professor, and encouraging parents and family – was the southern Utah landscape.

In the middle of writing ‘The Beast’ (as I affectionately termed my dissertation), my husband and I celebrated our tenth dating anniversary. Though I knew taking a break might be risky in terms of finishing on schedule, I also knew Matt and I needed to take time to enjoy the milestone. Thus, we decided to head down to one of our favorite haunts in southern Utah – and indeed, one of our favorite places in general – Capitol Reef National Park. Given our love of petroglyphs and anything archaeological, we decided we would also hit Horseshoe Canyon and the Great Gallery. Looking back on this trip from a place of new-found calm, I now know that not only did these silent spaces help Matt and I recognize our anniversary; the red rocks, towering cliffs, and ancient rock art also inspired me to get through one of the most challenging periods of my academic training.

On the way to Capitol Reef, we first stopped at Horseshoe Canyon to walk the trail that ends with the Great Gallery. As you may know, the journey to Great Gallery is as much the destination as the ancient rock art itself; once off the highway, we took off down the 32-mile dirt road. This was our second trip to this surreal place, and we knew the road has unpredictable, shifting sand dunes, washboards that shake your car violently, and a sense of isolation and adventure unparalleled even in remote southern Utah. As we bounced down the road and made it to the rim of Horseshoe Canyon, we stepped out into a wind storm, sand stinging our faces and eyes. Descending down the cliff side, we met up with the roughly-marked path winding along the canyon bottom, towering tan cliffs on either side. With no one else in sight and four panels of rock art to observe, we were in heaven.

Once we reached Great Gallery, however, each of us had to stop, sit, and stare. You can feel this place’s special energy and silence as soon as you round the last bend before the Gallery appears, ghostly dark red and brown figures looming high above you, six-foot tall beings watching you from a different time or planet. The figures look like large mummies or elaborate warriors, though trying to identify them or attach meaning distracts from their mystical quality. So we sat there in silence. Taking it in. Breathing deeply. And wondering to ourselves what inspired people thousands of years ago to create these magical, mysterious images. All the anxiety of writing a dissertation, of an impending move, of all the looming uncertainty were whisked away in that moment of silent desert stillness.

Once in Capitol Reef, after a bumpy drive back to the main road, we completed our customary hikes and delicious, gourmet dinners at Rim Rock Restaurant. This time, though, in honor of the special occasion, we did something we never have – we hired a local guide to take us on a backcountry tour of Cathedral Valley, where you can see the Temples of the Sun and Moon. Our guide arrived early in the morning, in a weathered Land Rover, a tall, stoic, reserved cowboy named Brian. He forded a river for us, taking us deep into the backcountry on a 60-mile loop. Brian described the landscape as he saw it, giving us insights into the park that we never had before, and amused Matt and I with stories of local residents and his own escapades in the area over the years. Once we arrived at Cathedral Valley, we knew we had reached another special, silent place. The sun peeked out, illuminating the Temples and accentuating their brilliant red. Even in the whipping wind, I took a deep breath and felt the silence, surrounding me for miles and miles. Any lingering worry slipped away, and I allowed myself to just feel connected to the landscape – at once alien and deeply comforting.

On our drive out of the area, I felt refreshed, full of life and love, and ready to tackle the long haul ahead. Without these silent spaces and their soothing energy captured in my imagination, I doubted I could handle the task. With them clear in my mind, though, I could push through the stress, self-doubt, and worry and complete the daunting task ahead.

The West is full of these silent spaces, the spaces that bring peace, encourage introspection, and cultivate self-awareness. What are yours? Please share!

Stepping Up and Taking Responsibility

Heath and wellness has been a common thread throughout my blogs and I am continuing to stitch with that thread again this month. So many things could distract me – the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant melt downs in Japan followed by yet additional earthquakes occurring again this week. Add to that the near melt down of our government operations as negotiations continued right up to the last minute to determine whether there would be a government-wide shut down reminiscent of the shut downs in 1995-96. So far it appears that government offices will be open for business at least for now although debates on the budget will continue. Even with all that excitement I’ll return to my health and wellness theme.

My focus this month is on the growing number of retirees and other members of the baby boomer generation who were born between 1946 and 1964. Baby boomers started turning 65 this year and their growing ranks are causing concern partly because of the impact they will have on Medicare. This is the fastest growing age group made up of around 39 million Americans, a number that will increase to 71 million by 2030. According to the American Hospital Association 60 percent of these folks will experience more than 1 chronic condition by 2030. These conditions include diabetes, arthritis, congestive heart failure and dementia. Chronic conditions are also the leading cause of death for older adults.

Last fall I went to a meeting of our local AARP Chapter. The Alaska State Director and the AARP National President were speakers. They each addressed health care and the need to get run away health care costs under control. As they fielded questions from a very interested audience I pondered why no one was talking about the things each one of us can do to improve our own health and the preventative steps we can take to avoid being part of that 60 percent. It was puzzling to me because there is so much each of us can do to improve and insure (to a certain degree) our own health and wellbeing with many ideas showing up in the AARP magazine.

AARP The Magazine arrives in my post office box every other month with an extensive health section that incorporates suggestions for maintaining and improving mental and physical health. Examples from September/October 2010 include articles on “green exercise”, fitness, maintaining healthy cholesterol levels and immune system health. I’m a regular reader and always save – and share – these articles even after the rest of the magazine has gone to the recycle bin.

I didn’t speak up but shortly after the meeting I contacted Juneau Chapter President to volunteer to present a session at AARP Day, which will take place at the end of April. There will be sessions on financial planning, tax law changes, estate planning, and Medicare, as well as cooking, stress reduction, and computer basics, and I’ll be there to talk about how being active outdoors can contribute to health and well-being.

I plan to highlight research from a study at the University of Essex in England that found that just five minutes a day of “green exercise” could boost your mood and self-esteem and reduce odds of depression and other psychological conditions. Green exercise can include gardening, fishing, walking, cycling – basically being active outdoors in a natural setting. In addition to the benefits of vitamin D from the sun (if you live where you have sun) other benefits include enhanced cognitive functioning and increased compassion, and positive effects on blood pressure, cholesterol, and stress. Some studies have also documented links between spending time in nature and longevity and decreased risk of mental illness.

Other research has found that walking can reduce diabetes incidence and lower mortality for those who have diabetes. One death per year may be preventable for every 61 people who walk at least 2 hours a week. While preventing one death per year may not seem like much I’m sure most of us know people with diabetes and it would make me happy if the diabetics that I know could avoid being a casualty of the disease…. and 2 hours a week is less than twenty minutes a day.  Diabetes often leads to the need for dialysis treatments that are not only inconvenient for the patient but also very expensive for society. In June 2006, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that nearly 22% of people 65 or older had diabetes with cases expected to increase 336 % over the next 50 years. If current trends continue one in three Americans born in 2000 will develop diabetes and this is not just a problem in the United States. The World Health Organization predicts that diabetes will rise 50 percent in the next decade with diabetes deaths doubling in the next ten years. It is frustrating that effective preventive measures are available through lifestyle changes but not everyone takes advantage of them.

In addition to being a preventative for diabetes, green exercise, specifically walking in forests and other natural settings has been shown to reduce stress, improve moods, reduce anger and aggressiveness and increase overall happiness (see Rural Connections – Healthy Communities Issue, Volume 5, Issue 1 – 2.3MB PDF). Walking is an especially good activity because, in addition to having less impact on your joints than running, if you swing your arms as most of us do, walking is a bilateral activity—meaning it allows us to access the whole brain. This makes it a very grounding activity that can result in increased creativity and healthy processing of emotions. As I mentioned in my article in Rural Connections (linked above) studies of “forest bathing” in Japan – short leisurely visits to a forest – increased vigor, decreased anxiety, depression, anger, may decrease psychosocial stress related diseases, and increased levels of a cell that releases anticancer proteins in the blood that work to prevent cancer generation and development.

So, you’ve been treated to a preview of my session at AARP Day in Juneau. In addition to sharing research findings I’ll be asking participants what kinds of outdoor activities they enjoy, what experiences they can share about the benefits they observe, and what we can do locally to encourage more people to engage in outdoor activities. What do people find as barriers or impediments to getting outdoors for a walk? I know for me it is mostly making time to head outdoors. In fact, I think it is time for me to head out right now!

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

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant and Rural Western Communities – The Unexpected Connection

By Stephanie A. Malin

The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan have captured international attention, which now lingers on the nation as Japan struggles to control and contain repeated disasters and tense moments at its six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.   I focus on this series of events for this month’s blog because these nuclear accidents may have unexpected impacts on economies in remote rural pockets of the American West.

Even as the Fukushima Daiichi workers struggle through tense moments, in southwestern Colorado, Energy Fuels’ Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill (PR Mill) has been given approval by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPH&E) to receive and process radioactive materials.  Local communities like Nucla and Naturita are populated with many people in vocal support of the mill for the jobs it will likely provide, with the most vocal being residents possessing fond memories of the last uranium booms.  Though a few licenses must still be acquired before construction can begin, the CDPH&E’s approval in January of the PR Mill holds significance and substantive meaning, given Colorado’s status as an Agreement State in which state-level institutions such as the CDPH&E give final approval on the mill equivalent to that granted by the federal-level Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Company leaders and local residents remain confident that ground will be broken by 2012 and that the mill will provide at least 65 full-time, benefitted jobs.  This assurance remains, despite a lawsuit brought against the CDPH&E and Energy Fuels by regional environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliance (SMA).

Politically, state-level approval of this mill signals that perhaps US sentiments regarding nuclear power have shifted for the first time since the late 1970s.  Since that time – when the Three Mile Island incident left Americans largely skeptical of siting new nuclear facilities anywhere near their own communities – not a single nuclear reactor has been built or waste repository location approved.  Even the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill, if constructed, will be the first uranium mill built since the end of the Cold War.  Residents of communities near the mill that I have interviewed and surveyed see the mill as one of the best chances for the area to reclaim its economic and cultural glory days as a uranium production powerhouse.

Current events at the Fukushima Daiichi Plant may, however, pose a palpable threat to this possible local-level economic resurgence; a bigger ‘threat’ than even the hotly-contested SMA.   As an international audience watches radioactive steam releases, explosions, and a public terrified of radiation exposure, the uranium market has been dealing with its own unpredictability (eg., see http://www.cbc.ca/fp/story/2011/03/16/4451889.html).  Uranium prices and worldwide demand have halted as the Fukushima Daiichi drama unfolds.  China, one significant source of demand for processed uranium – even from the PR Mill – has announced it will slow down its plans for nuclear expansion in the country.  With about 77 nuclear reactors either in the planning or construction phases, even a temporary moratorium on China’s nuclear reactors deeply impacts the global uranium market.  For example, a large Canadian uranium corporation – Uranium One, Inc. – was supposed to join with another Russian-owned uranium corporation, ARMZ, to take over another resources firm.  However, that deal has been halted by ARMZ.  Last week, the price of uranium also fell from about US$66 to US$55.  If prices for it fall below US$40, uranium becomes much less profitable to mine and process, even for experienced outfits like Energy Fuels in southwestern Colorado.

It remains to be seen if this market change is temporary, or if the Fukushima Daiichi disaster will have the same sort of impact on construction of nuclear-related facilities as did Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.   As rural Westerners in communities like those around the proposed PR Mill watch and pray for Japanese well-being and safety, I wonder if they also think a little of their own futures and well-being.  It may be that the fate of Fukushima Daiichi helps decide the fate of rural uranium communities where recession has been reality since the early 1980s.

America’s Great Outdoors

“The function of protecting and developing health must rank even above that of restoring it when it is impaired.” Hippocrates

At a White House ceremony on February 16, President Obama released America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations. The report is one outcome of the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. Over the past year more than 10,000 people participated in over 50 listening sessions held around the country. More than 105,000 comments were received. Twenty-one sessions were held specifically to hear from young people. In his remarks the President commented on the need to “break free from the routine and reconnect with the world around us … to make it easier for families to spend time outside no matter where they live … and to make it easier to access public lands.”

The AGO Report recommends establishing a new Conservation Service Corps to engage young people in stewardship, conservation, and recreation, and calls for fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the source of funding for federal land acquisition and state grant programs. The President called these efforts steps to help spur the economy. He said, “They create jobs by putting more Americans back to work in tourism and recreation. They help inspire a new generation of scientists to learn how the world works. They help Americans stay healthier by making it easier to spend time outside. And they’ll help carry forth our legacy as a people who don’t just make decisions based on short-term gains of any one group but on what’s best for the entire nation in the long run.”

Federal agencies provide recreational opportunities and facilities on more than 635 million acres of public land, host over a billion visits each year (USDA report on Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2002) and provide a wide range of opportunities to connect to the outdoors. The Report calls on all Americans “to share in the responsibility to conserve, restore, and provide better access to our lands and waters in order to leave a healthy, vibrant outdoor legacy for generations yet to come.” Not only will these efforts leave a legacy for future generations but they also will provide important benefits today.

Between 1991 and 2001 obesity increased 75 percent among adults and today more than one in three adults, over 72 million people, are medically obese and are more likely to suffer from or develop type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Childhood obesity has tripled in the last generation and today, one in five young people between the ages of 6 and 19 is obese. If the current trend continues one in three Americans who was born in 2000 will develop diabetes. The World Health Organization predicts that diabetes will rise 50 percent in the next decade, with diabetes deaths doubling in the next ten years (WHO, 2010).

The cost of healthcare is nearly 17% of our total economic output and is projected to rise to 20% by the end of this year. Healthcare experts tell us that 70% of the total cost – $2.7 trillion in 2009 – is lifestyle induced with over $150 billion a year spent on obesity-related illnesses. We also know that children are spending only half as much time outdoors as their parents did. Our public lands can play a role in reversing this trend.  “Studies show that access to the outdoors can help reverse the obesity epidemic . . . ,  reduce stress and anxiety, promote learning and personal growth, and foster mental and physical health” (AGO 2011).

The AGO Report calls for engaging young people in its implementation. In addition to the Conservation Service Corps, the AGO Report calls for improved capacity for recruiting, training, and managing volunteers and volunteer programs “to create a new generation of citizen stewards and mentors.” The Report calls for community-based efforts to increase access to outdoor recreation and a campaign to “cultivate stewardship and appreciation of America’s natural, cultural, and historic resources through innovative awareness-raising partnership initiatives and through education” to make the outdoors relevant and exciting and to “advance awareness and understanding of the benefits of nature.”

The AGO Report also calls for managing public land for long-term health and resilience in light of climate change, empowering local communities to work together to establish recreation opportunities and to restore and connect with their rich water-based natural resources, and supporting restoration and conservation of rivers, bays, coasts, lakes, and estuaries for recreation, healthy fisheries, and wildlife habitat.

I encourage you to access and read the complete report and identify ways you can help implement the Report’s recommendations. America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations can be downloaded at www.doi.gov/AmericasGreatOutdoors.

Social Anthropology and Rural Economic Development

By Ed Meyer

For more than three decades, I’ve made a conscious effort to stay far away from the divisive diatribes so typical of arguments regarding public lands and the environment. When I’ve been ambushed in a meeting and forced to listen to the well-practiced public lands rhetoric repeated for the thousandth time, an image comes to my mind. It’s an image of the Dugum Dani warriors from the New Guinea highlands that I recall from the University Utah where I was studying social anthropology.

Keep in mind that I was taking anthropology classes thirty years ago so my memories are blurred by time, but here’s how I remember films I watched back when you still had to wind film onto projectors. It seemed like the women did all the work in the Dugum Dani villages. They raised sweet potatoes and tended pigs while the men got ready to go to “war”.  Since the men didn’t wear anything except a “koteka” (look it up for yourself at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koteka because I’m not going there), preparations seemed to most involve a lot of chest thumping and a little face painting. However, in the late morning or early afternoon, the men would go to a canyon where they yelled at men from another tribe and shot arrows that never seemed to hit anything. The technical term for this is “ritual small-scale warfare and here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

Ritual small-scale warfare between rival villages is integral to traditional Dani culture, with much time spent preparing weapons, engaging in both mock and real battle, and treating any resulting injuries. Typically the emphasis in battle is to insult the enemy and wound or kill token victims, as opposed to capturing territory or property or vanquishing the enemy village.

If you are interested in learning more about the Dugum Dani, you may want to visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dugum_Dani.  As an aside, the ritual battles I saw in college in 1972 have become much more serious as the primate Dugum Dani have come in contact with the outside world and now are being sold high powered rifles.

I’ve certainly circumnavigated around my point which is that pretty much everyone embroiled in the battle over public lands remind me of the Dugum Dani warriors mocking one another, insulting the “enemy”, rattling arrows and firing ineffective volleys at one another.  To me it has always seemed so wasteful and counterproductive. So I chose another route that focused directly on trying to help people at the community level.

(Pictured: Abraham Maslow)

But now I’m retired and want to propose something that was not politically appropriate when I was a state employee. Before I make my proposal, I want to go back to my anthropology training and dredge up from my ancient lessons the theories of a guy named Abraham Maslow. He proposed something now known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation (I expect all of you sociology students are groaning about now). Mr. Maslow was a pretty boring guy so let me summarize how his concept relates to rural America and the public lands debacle.

Maslow said that people need to take care of a whole host of needs before they will focus on an area he called “self actualization”. In terms of rural America, you have to make sure you provide food and shelter for yourself and your family before you will be willing to consider more lofty goals like protecting the environment. So when you are forced to give up a job in a sawmill or a mine that pays a family-sustaining wage in exchange for turning bed sheets in a motel, you won’t be receptive to ideas like protecting wilderness areas. If you want be really bored, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs.

So here, based on Maslow, is my idea and my challenge to the environmental community. Rural people will never embrace protection of the environment and tying up public lands until they have family sustaining jobs. So you can fight them until hell freezes over. You can keep filing lawsuits draining your budgets and those of people living in rural America or you can invest in an alternative strategy. If you don’t want rural people to continue their efforts to obtain family sustaining, natural resource-based jobs, then you need to find a way to substitute environmentally sensitive jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage.

Think about it. Thousands of companies professing to be environmentally conscious are contributing to environmental movements. What if instead of doing this they invested in rural communities adjacent to public lands by providing “clean jobs”.  What this would entail is a willingness to sustain a loss for a few years as the new rural employees are trained and gain experience. In some cases, there might even be an ongoing loss since many rural communities are isolated, but the growth of information-based jobs should counterbalance the cost of isolation. It is my experience that, once a rural person’s family needs are addressed, they are more willing to consider environmental partnership to address mutual needs.

Of course, this isn’t likely to happen. Environmental organizations don’t sustain themselves by solving environmental problems. Rather, it’s in their interests to sustain problems for generations if possible.  But prove me wrong. If you have an idea about an environmentally clean company who wants to provide jobs next to sensitive public lands, call me in Kanab. My name is Ed Meyer and my number is in the phone book. Next month I’ll let you know how many calls I’ve received.

“Degrees to Nowhere”?! – I Beg to Differ!

By Stephanie A. Malin

Given last month’s blog topic – and recent comments by Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson that degrees such as sociology, psychology, and philosophy are “degrees to nowhere” – my blog this month focuses on the vital role played by humanities and social sciences in higher education. As a PhD Candidate in Environmental and Development Sociology, and as an instructor of undergraduates at Utah State, I feel I have a personal and professional stake in showcasing the value of knowledge imparted by sociology, philosophy, psychology, and other social sciences and humanities.

First, as a sociologist, I want to clarify what it is that I, and we, do. Sociologists study how people behave in groups, from small-group interactions to institutions to entire global systems, like economic and political structures. Many of us trace the emergence and development of social movements in these contexts and tie them to historical trends. We also analyze power structures to better understand the impacts of growing inequality, effects of environmental pollutants, or shifts in labor markets. Sociologists try to represent marginalized voices while recording massive social changes occurring in the face of globalization, rapid technological progress, shifting political structures, and environmental degradation. Thus, I fail to understand how sociological knowledge – which records empirical social change and offers theoretical explanations for patterns emergent in society, so that we may form more equitable policy – can be framed as frivolous or less important that any of the “hard” sciences. Clearly, Sen. Stephenson did not pay attention in his sociology course(s), or as a leader navigating constituents through a particularly difficult historical period for our country, he would have a greater appreciation for what the discipline imparts…

All humanities and social sciences offer additional “training” in college that gives people a sense of historical context, cultural literacy, and challenges our students to think critically about the world they will soon be entering as adults and, yes, workers. Yet, advanced education should not just prepare our students to find meaningful, lucrative employment, but also guide students who are still shaping their ethical codes and oftentimes political and social outlooks. I believe this is one of the greatest gifts we are given as college instructors, to encounter students at a time when many of them are forming their worldviews as adults. Thus, classes offered in a university setting must teach not only technical knowledge, but social and political awareness and critical thinking capabilities as well. These latter skill sets make people more capable workers and more informed citizens.

For example, in my Sociology of Environment course, we study how to become more media literate consumers. I have students analyze historical trends in advertising and media ownership, their own consumption patterns, and related environmental impacts. Through in-class discussions and exercises, outside interactive assignments, and current readings in environment and economics, students in my class learn how to critically analyze sources of their information in an information-saturated world.

I also teach an upper-level Social Statistics course. Believe it or not, many sociologists know how to do math, even statistics. Some of us even do fancy things like Structural Equation Modeling and other complex statistical techniques in research programs attempting to understand global issues like HIV/AIDS rates, patterns in the global recession, or trends in income inequality in the US. In classes such as Social Statistics, students learn skills enviable on the job market for a business, accounting firm, or even agencies such as the Census Bureau or local criminal justice systems. A female student in my summer 2010 Statistics class graduated in August but – in this employment climate – had already been hired full-time as a researcher for the Cache Valley branch of the National Children’s Study. According to her, her statistical skills earned her this job. While anecdotal, I have abundant examples of similar situations, as I know my fellow Sociology instructors do. This evidence directly counters Senator Stephenson’s argument that degrees such as sociology are ‘degrees to nowhere.’

Finally, I assert the above illustration makes a strong case that cuts made to higher education funding – and where they are targeted – are premised on a misguided understanding of what a university does and what sort of vital skills are valued in today’s job market. Of course, technical and engineering degrees provide important skill sets. But higher education is not a zero-sum game; the value of science and engineering degrees does not negate the value of social science or humanities degrees or courses. Instead, they should complement one another, helping create well-rounded, articulate employees and citizens. After all, employers value critical thinkers and articulate communicators, especially in the longer term, whether they run an engineering firm, financial institution, or natural gas extraction operation. Instead of providing students with “degrees to nowhere,” social scientists and humanities practitioners help cultivate students who will earn more over the course of their careers (eg., see Cooper, hardnewcafe.usu.edu), while enriching our economy and society with articulate communicators, critical thinkers, and proactive citizens.