Ecology and Natural History of the American West is one of COA's "monster courses," combining multiple classes in different disciplines to give COA students an opportunity to experience first-hand the incredible topography between the Pacific Slope and Great Basin Desert.Ecology and Natural History of the American West is one of COA's "monster courses," combining multiple classes in different disciplines to give COA students an opportunity to experience first-hand the incredible topography between the Pacific Slope and Great Basin Desert.

Team taught by faculty members Dr. John Anderson, W.H. Drury Professor of Ecology/Natural History, and Ken Cline, J.D., David Rockefeller Family Chair in Ecosystem Management and Protection, Sara Lowgren '20 takes a dip in Darwin Falls, in Death Valley, California, while on College of the Atlantic's Great West expeditionary course.Sara Lowgren '20 takes a dip in Darwin Falls, in Death Valley, California, while on College of the Atlantic's Great West expeditionary course.Ecology and Natural History of the American West is a three-course program located entirely in the American West.

The West has played a key role in the development of modern ecology and in our overall understanding of the Natural History of North America. Researchers such as Joseph Grinnell, Starker Leopold, Ned Johnson, Phillip Munz, and Jim Patton contributed enormously to our understanding of the interactions, distribution, and abundance of the enormous range of plants and animals occupying the western states, while the incredible variety of topography found between the Pacific slope and Great Basin Desert, containing both the highest and lowest points in the Lower 48, provides an ideal setting for both observation and experimentation.

This intensive field based course provides students with the opportunity to examine first-hand some key habitats within Nevada, California, and New Mexico, and to conduct a series of short projects on the fauna and flora in select sites. This course examines terminal saline lakes, open deserts, montane meadows, pine forest, riparian hardwoods, wetlands, and agricultural landscapes.

"In the West, mine tailings are as tall as mountains in the East. Vast steps are formed by the tons of displaced earth. They are layered with the colors of oxidizing iron and copper like the painted hills of the desert. The apocalyptic sublime. In the West, rivers are pipes and switches and controls. Call up the bureau, we want more water today" — Chloe Hanken '21."In the West, mine tailings are as tall as mountains in the East. Vast steps are formed by the tons of displaced earth. They are layered with the colors of oxidizing iron and copper like the painted hills of the desert. The apocalyptic sublime. In the West, rivers are pipes and switches and controls. Call up the bureau, we want more water today" — Chloe Hanken '21.

From professor Cline:

The 2017 Great West class takes place in a unique moment in time. America’s public lands are under siege, in a way they have not been for more than 100 years. The continued existence of this significant public legacy is in doubt—both in a political sense and in the broad ecological changes that are occurring with climate change, fire, and invasive species.

Sophia Prisco '18 exploring Grand Staircase, a 200,000,000-year-old natural staircase in Escalante State Park, Utah which is the size of Delaware and filled with animals, minerals, and vegetables.Sophia Prisco '18 exploring Grand Staircase, a 200,000,000-year-old natural staircase in Escalante State Park, Utah which is the size of Delaware and filled with animals, minerals, and vegetables.

In the course of 7000 miles, 8 weeks, and hundreds of conversations, a group of 12 students and 2 faculty sought to understand what is happening on and to our public lands. Through meetings with ranchers, wilderness advocates, anti-government activists, land managers, scientists, recreation professionals, educators, alumni, and tribal people, we sought some understanding of the changes, attitudes, and conflicts that are embroiling the West. From the cell-free wilderness peaks of the Sierra to the painful border fence trying to rend Arizona from Mexico, we traveled, observed, listened, wrestled with, and ultimately tried to make sense of a vast region of the country. The combination of the boundless curiosity and enthusiasm of the students and the generosity of the people who we met along the way produced a rich tapestry of ideas, emotions, and observations.

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park."To be local to a place includes two things primarily: it is to be involved—anxiously engaged in the goings on—and to be there, able to actually look upon the landscape, to care about a place enough that you are physically present… The definition of local I offer is simple, and rooted in the same emotion as the rugged individual myth: love. In loving a place, you tie your fate to its fate. It's a big risk to become a local" — Ky Osguthorpe ’19.Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park.
"To be local to a place includes two things primarily: it is to be involved—anxiously engaged in the goings on—and to be there, able to actually look upon the landscape, to care about a place enough that you are physically present… The definition of local I offer is simple, and rooted in the same emotion as the rugged individual myth: love. In loving a place, you tie your fate to its fate. It's a big risk to become a local" — Ky Osguthorpe ’19.

Holding the serenity of a mountain lake and the blazing neon of Las Vegas in a single thought, let alone in a single class, was a challenge, but an important one to try. It will take all of us more than the eight weeks to process and make sense of all that we saw and learned.
As with all COA classes, there is something extra that is gained by going through this experience together. And although we are not all changed in the same way, we are all definitely changed by the experience.

Special thanks to biology faculty member Steve Ressell and alumni Erica Maltz ’07, Anneke Hart ’16, and Julia Rowe ’02 for helping us make this class the rich experience that it was.