September 9, 2015

Teaching students respect for public lands

Posted by Laura Guertin

Last week, a disturbing news article came out that I caught via Twitter:

I say the article is “disturbing” because of the alleged actions of undergraduate students during their summer field camp, while on public land. Student names, as well as a university name, were written directly on top of 700-year-old rock art created by Freemont Indians. Never mind bad judgement and bad behavior – I am sure the students were not aware that Native American rock art is protected by the Antiquities Act of 1906. And I bet these students (dare I suggest most of our students) are not aware of what the phrase “public land” means, the history of these lands, and their use of and responsibility towards protecting these lands. Other news outlets are now picking up the story, such as Deseret News. The Denver Post states that one of the faculty members from the university “says the staff pledges to make it clear that writing or defacing any natural resource is unacceptable.” But what does it mean to “make it clear”? And is that enough to ensure something like this does not happen again?

Students are not going to know the value of public lands and how and why they were established unless we, their instructors and mentors, become proactive and thoughtful in how we share with students some foundational knowledge of public lands. Some topics that could be covered with students include:

  • The Antiquities Act of 1906 – “obligates federal agencies that manage the public lands to preserve for present and future generations the historic, scientific, commemorative, and cultural values of the archaeological and historic sites and structures on these lands. It also authorizes the President to protect landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest by designating them as National Monuments.” (see further information on the National Park Service Archaeology Program site) Help students understand this essential document that established early conservation and preservation efforts in the United States. And here is some additional information on the protection of Native American artifacts.
  • History of the National Park Service – Some national parks are older than the NPS, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016. Can your students name which park was the first? the most recent? Teach students the history of the National Park Service, how many parks exist, and how new lands can be designated. An interactive timeline for the National Park Service is also available online.
  • Differences between NPS, USDA NFS, USFWS, BLM… – It is the alphabet soup of federal agencies! Help students understand the differences between national parks, national monuments, national forests, national wildlife refuges, national wetlands, etc. What do these designations mean? What is the goal for protection and conservation of each?
  • The founding fathers of public lands – Introduce students to the people and the role that they played in making the establishment of public lands/national parks possible (and those that caused challenges along the way) – Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Stephen Mather, etc. There is a section on the PBS/Ken Burns The National Parks: America’s Best Idea site with a great list of names and biographies.
  • The laws – and penalties – on public lands – Make sure that students know that there are serious consequences (heavy fines, jail time, etc.) for defacing, abusing, and removing rocks/soil/water/plants/artifacts/etc. from public lands. The book Bad Luck Hot Rocks is a great example of the guilt people have felt after removing pieces of petrified wood from Petrified Forest National Park – yet these “conscience letters” do not make up for illegal activity.

With the flurry of tweets that came about after the KSL article and other news outlets picking up the story, we as faculty have to take action and make sure students understand and respect the opportunity they have to explore the amazing geology of our public lands, so that others now and in the future can also benefit from what public lands have to offer us and our discipline. It’s not too late to plan a department activity and/or suggest to your student geology club to volunteer at your local site for National Public Lands Day (September 26, 2015) to say “thank you” for all that public lands provide.