Art and education fuel young public lands advocates

At University of Montana, students foster a conservation vision for the future.


Natalie Dawson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of NewTowncarShare News. She is a rambling wildlife biologist and director of the Wilderness Institute at the University of Montana.

In Missoula, Montana, a current art exhibition includes a cardboard rendition of President Donald Trump’s border wall, complete with windows and wildlife doors. There’s also a greenhouse made of wood along with an easy chair for relaxation, a climbing wall fashioned out of discarded materials like bottle caps from local dumpsters, and a contraption that would somehow clean up the oceans’ plastic pollution.  

The display demonstrates some of the virtual solutions to today’s pressing conservation concerns and was devised by college students in the “Wilderness and Civilization” program at the University of Montana. None of these young people are art students, yet as part of their class they have to show the public the kind of ideas they come up with.

Their exhibit, called “Dream Solutions,” attempts to answer this question: “Given limitless resources, including technology and money, what existing perceived problem at the intersection of (so-called) wilderness and civilization would you ‘fix,’ and how would you fix it?” 

Using only cardboard and other recycled materials, the students engaged in the artistic expression of some of the ideas they’ve been studying all year — subjects such as public lands and how to manage the conflicting demands they face with limited money. The students also wrestled with the sometimes-inexplicable relationship between humans and the natural world. 

A postdoctoral researcher at the University of Montana studies the Western spadefoot toad.

About his “wall,” which seemed surprisingly porous, sophomore Forest Smith explained, “I aspired to be one of the architects for President Trump and his plans to build a wall between the border of Mexico and the U.S. My wall will be littered with holes and entrances to accommodate the people, animals, plants that tend to bisect these arbitrary man-made lines.”

Another exhibit, Fragmentation,” by junior Jessy Stevenson, looks at the impact of boundaries on the land. She grew up in Swan Valley, Montana, where a checkerboard pattern of land ownership has created management problems. Josiah Simmons, a junior majoring in wildlife biology, opted to “portray an act of Congress that would require people to kill their own food in order to eat meat. If this were the law … conditions for animals would improve, the environmental impact of cattle and pig farming would be reduced, and people would live healthier lives.”

One student exhibit focused on improved surveillance systems to prevent car collisions with wildlife, while another tallied the waste that Americans compost or recycle compared to the waste we throw away, asking, “Where does it really go? Why do we send our recycling to China?”

Senior Kyra Searcy created a “mobile greenhouse, which takes in carbon dioxide from the air around it. Plants produce oxygen inside the cube … giving 20 minutes of fresh clean air to users from all economic classes and parts of cities that may be affected by air pollution.”

In “Spoils of Recreation,” sophomore Jessica Raty explored the dark side of consumption in recreation. “By taking common items needed for recreationists to get to the trail, the trash that would normally be impacting the landscape is being used to create fun, functional climbing walls for the community.”

All of the students used concepts they explored in conversations during the last six months with landowners, ranchers, federal land managers, conservationists, theologians, rural schoolteachers, scholars and poets throughout the West. Many were not from the Western part of the country, yet they became so involved in the region’s natural resources issues that, when faced with the opportunity to take a weekend off, they elected instead to keep on learning about the West and its problems. A group decided to drive to Salt Lake City to participate in a public-lands rally in support of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. For many students, it was their first time at a public rally. They came back to classes with the exhilaration that accompanies freedom of expression.

This art exhibit was a culmination of that freedom of expression. Whether we live in a small Montana town or large urban center, finding our voices can be difficult, and learning how to engage with others can seem daunting. Yet here was the next generation of public-lands leaders, activists, writers, scientists, educators and engineers, engaging in new forms of expression.

As they grow in knowledge and experience, perhaps they can help answer the increasingly difficult conservation questions we all must face, in ways we can only dream about right now.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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