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By Andi Bourne

Exploring Ecology and Community-based Conservation


Faith Bernstein

The Landscapes and Livelihood students visit several lumber mills to learn about the logging industry firsthand. Here they are pictured at RBM Lumber in Columbia Falls.

SWAN VALLEY – Since the early 2000s, Northwest Connections (NwC) led a two-month course called Landscapes and Livelihood. It introduced college students from all over the country to ecology and community-based conservation in the Swan Valley. Following the merger of NwC and Swan Ecosystem Center, Swan Valley Connections (SVC) continues to teach the course that promotes the triple bottom line: healthy ecology, healthy community and healthy economy.

NwC was founded in 1997 by Tom and Melanie Parker and Andrea Stephens. The initial focus was on conservation work.

"The conservation work was to help infuse the rich wealth of local knowledge about our forests, our ecosystems, our watersheds into land management decisions," said SVC Education Coordinator Rebekah Rafferty. "The whole purpose was to gather good, ground-based information by the people who live here and know this place to help the agencies make good decisions. A lot of collaborative work was born from this."

Rafferty said the founders of NwC wanted to reach students, getting them out of the classroom and into the field.

"They wanted [students] to learn what it was to be doing conservation not in a preserved landscape but in a working landscape where people depend on natural resources, wildlife depend on natural resources and some of the wildlife are endangered species," said Rafferty.

The goal of the Landscapes and Livelihood Program was to present students with the complexity of conservation in a community. Rafferty said a secondary goal was to expose them to the landscape and help them develop the tools they need as professionals to be able to correctly interpret landscape patterns and processes. The hope is that these tools would help them make good decisions as professionals that incorporate all of the social, economic and other complex realities that are presented in working landscapes.

In the early days of recruitment, most of the students were from the University of Montana (UM). NwC started promoting the program all over the country and quickly realized the value in bringing in students from a variety of backgrounds.

"It's really great for students' experience to bring a variety of students with a whole breadth of their own experiences as another layer of complexity with how they interact and how they learn together," said Rafferty.

When NwC merged with Swan Ecosystems Center forming SVC, all the programs were evaluated to see if they met the combined mission.

"This was one of the really successful programs that met the previous missions of the two organizations and now our current mission. We are personally passionate about this. It is a way that our students and ourselves can interact with the community and share knowledge and experiences," said Rafferty.

The program has four lead instructors including Adam Lieberg, Andrea Stephens, Rafferty and Sarah Halm. They also draw on the expertise of other SVC staff to help teach their area of expertise during the program.

"We pride ourselves on being practitioners of what we teach," said Rafferty. "Our instructors are a part of this community, doing conservation work and teach the material that they are working on."

Landscapes and Livelihood is made up of five courses: Biogeography of Northwest Montana; Watershed Dynamics; Forest and Communities, Sustainability and Agriculture and the Community Conservation Project.

Biogeography of Northwest Montana focuses on the terrestrial ecology, from the flora, fauna and the geographic history as well as how people have shaped and continue to shape the landscape.

Watershed Dynamics looks at the glacial legacy of wetlands, how the forest has developed from that and what plants and animals are here because of that. It also looks at how the human uses of land and water have affected the watershed and ways to mitigate impacts and create opportunities for conservation that works for people and resources.

Rafferty said Biogeography and Watershed Dynamics emphasize ecological literacy. It teaches students to use their interpretation skills and knowledge to assess the patterns and processes on that landscape without prior knowledge.

The third course Forest and Communities teaches students how to read the forest. It specifically looks at what has shaped the forest, where it is headed, how it affects people and how they affect it. Because the U.S. Forest Services owns 90 percent of the land in the Swan Valley, the class this fall dug into the Flathead National Forest revision process and looked at how the Endangered Species Act and litigation affect the community and the economy.

Sustainability and Agriculture is the newest course. The teachers recognized that nationally students are interested in where their food comes from so they added this course. They looked at subsistence agriculture and hunting and gathering in the Swan Valley. They studied the Water Compact and how that process affected people on a regional level in the Mission Valley. And they looked at the national agricultural production model with local cattle ranchers that are managing their animals, being stewards of their land while faced with regulations and issues with grizzly bears, wolves and bull trout in the Blackfoot Valley.

The fifth course is the Community Conservation Project where students pose an original question and they use a social science methodology to further study their question. At the end of the program the students present their findings to members of the community and to the SVC staff.

"Because there are so many themes that weave throughout, we will pick themes and cluster days of each class where it makes sense to integrate with each other," said Rafferty.

Throughout the program, students are evaluated based on assignments, a field journal, field tests on various skills and essays. Their proposal and final essay from their final project are also graded.

Typically eight to 12 students attend the program each fall. They live at the Beck Homestead on the Swan River for two month with one weekend off. Students receive 16 upper-division semester credits from the University of Montana (UM). Students get a single week off in the middle of the program.

"It is quite intensive but it is sustainable. We have to pack a lot in," said Rafferty.

For one weekend, students stay with local residents as an opportunity to do what the locals do on the weekend. Rafferty said this gives students the opportunity to interact with community members unfiltered and unstructured conversation.

"We hear that a lot of good and maybe difficult conversations happen during the home stays. The students have conversations that maybe they would never have the opportunity to have with someone in their lives by having people from such different walks of life under the same roof for a weekend," said Rafferty.

The students also do a community firewood day alongside other volunteers where they chop and deliver firewood to those in need.

Rafferty said that students can spend a year or two in the classroom studying collaborative conservation, restoration and sociology of wildlife conflict. However, the impact of their two months in the program leaves a lasting impression because they are experiencing it, doing it and talking to people.

"The ability for this method of learning to expedite learning and increase the depth and complexity of that learning really prepares students for what they will face as professionals," said Rafferty. "And the students are much more equipped to deal critically and honorably with the problems that they face."

Some of the positive outcomes of the program include breaking down community barriers and helping the students understand the challenges of doing conservation work in rural communities and how important it is to have an open mind and interact with people.

"It is really important to us as staff and as a board to pump students out into the world to go do conservation work in the future that values working with people. Then we will get durable conservation solutions if we have people working in the field that honor human communities as well as the natural communities.

They keep track of students that graduate from the program. Some go on to work for non-profitorganizations or agencies and others go on to higher education. They offer educational and conservation internships giving preference to alumni from the program.

Rafferty finds it really rewarding to watch students have aha moments when interacting with the landscape and those that live in the Swan and then to see them spread that experience to others.

Lucy Labadie

Aspen Anderson from the University of Montana takes a break to enjoy the sunshine while exploring a Swan River tributary.

"We say it is our goal to have students leave here less certain about their convictions than when they came here because we need more people out there with open minds that are thinking critically about things rather than jumping to conclusions."

Rafferty said that while the program is for the students it is also for all the communities across the western United States where these students will eventually be working.

"The community helps shape the students while they are here and in the future. It also affects their conservation work that represents all of the facets of conservation not just the natural and wildlife side. Thinking about what we call the triple bottom line: is the ecology healthy, is the community healthy and is the economy healthy. Obviously we don't have all the answers, but in asking the question, good things come from that."


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