“Out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real . . . For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted . . . and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.”
Edward Abbey wrote this excerpted quote in his book, Desert Solitaire, fifty years ago; however, Abbey’s words still ring true today and capture the recent experience of a group of second and third year law students from the University of Colorado Law School, who embarked upon a memorable trip to the Colorado Plateau region over the 2018 spring semester break period. This field trip is a required part of the Advanced Natural Resources Seminar offered at CU Law for upper level law students. In this seminar, the students study historical, literary, and scientific materials and analyze current problems relating to natural resources law over the course of a semester. Each year the seminar focuses on a different area within the American public lands system, and culminates in a field trip to visit that location.
This year, the seminar group traveled to the Colorado Plateau region, which covers an estimated 140,000 square miles within western Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, southeastern Utah, and northern Arizona. This region is rich in cultural and biological diversity, containing numerous tribes and various ecosystems, as well as the greatest concentration of U.S. National Park Service units outside Washington, DC, including nine national parks and 18 national monuments. The seminar students ventured out of the classroom and into the wilderness to learn about the region’s intricate and interconnected issues relating to natural resources, energy, and environmental law. During the week and a half they spent together exploring this region, the students journeyed through four different states, meeting with a variety of legal experts and community leaders in the field to learn about differing perspectives regarding public land protection, tribal interests, wildlife management, and cultural preservation.
This trip came at an opportune time for the students to witness first-hand the complicated nature of public land management, as many of the public land areas and national monuments in Plateau states are under scrutiny by the federal government. The students observed this struggle first-hand as they met with a variety of professionals in the region, ranging from non-profit leaders committed to preserving and protecting public lands in their most natural state, to government officers from the Bureau of Land Management, who have been assigned the challenging task of balancing multiple uses of government land. The students also learned about the vital importance of tribal participation in public land management as they hiked their way through the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, Comb Ridge (once a part of the originally-designated Bears Ears National Monument) and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, all of which are important sites for Native American tribes. In fact, a trip highlight for many of the students was an afternoon spent with Nicole Horseherder, a founding member of Black Mesa Water Coalition and member of Navajo Nation, who lead the students on an excursion through Navajo reservation land and discussed the various economic and environmental issues tribal members are facing in the region. Hiking through land now deprived of its main water source and interacting with the tribal members advocating against the commercial interests accused of taking the water, the students experienced emotions and thoughts that can never be truly developed within the confines of the classroom environment. While shocking, the injustices the students observed affirmed their commitment to their legal career paths and served as an inspiration to continue to advocate for vulnerable communities.
The students delved further into the complicated nature of competing interests by continuing their road trip to Northern Arizona to learn about both past challenges and future opportunities regarding the region’s energy sources by touring the Glen Canyon Dam, the Marble Canyon proposed dam site, and the soon-to-close Navajo Generating Station. During this stretch of the trip, the group spent several nights at Kane Ranch, a restored 19th century ranch house now owned by the Grand Canyon Trust, hiking around the Kaibab National Forest to observe sustainable grazing techniques and drought management methods. The trip culminated in a visit to witness and discuss the recent changes resulting from increased development around Moab and Canyonlands.
Reflecting back on their trip, the students have a new perspective on and appreciation for the historical issues of the Colorado Plateau, as well as a passion to help enact change to improve the future of this region. While many of the students came into the trip with extensive background knowledge regarding natural resources law and public land issues, the field trip afforded the students the opportunity to witness first-hand the effects of legal and policy decisions that are often made far away from the people and places they actually impact. Public land management is often convoluted and complex, with no easy or apparent solutions to difficult choices. However, these future leaders, now more than ever after their experiences on their field trip, understand the crucial importance of protecting these valuable areas so that others can have their own adventures in these special places and gain a new respect for America’s unique public land legacy.
Amanda Biedermann is a 2018 CU Law Graduate