Dreams in dry places: Education for the Colorado Plateau

By Andrew Gulliford

The West has always been full of dreamers and schemers, but rarely have true visionaries sought educational goals. Westerners sought lost gold and silver, large ranches lush with grass and fresh water or untouched timber.

Other Westerners, to use Wallace Stegner’s phrase, seek “a society to match its scenery.” One such Westerner with a 21st century goal is Janet Ross, executive director of the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education, who has big plans for 48 acres north of Monticello, Utah.

Ross has a vision for an education, conservation, service and adventure institution, embracing the vast Colorado Plateau, which is home to more national parks, national forests, national monuments, wilderness areas and tribal reservations than anywhere on Earth.

Ross doesn’t plan to grant degrees. Instead, she wants to connect people with place. She wants shared knowledge of this dynamic landscape we call home. Since 1984, the Four Corners School and its associated programs, including Canyon Country Youth Corps, Southwest Ed-Ventures and the Bioregional Outdoor Education Project, have introduced thousands of visitors and locals to the history, habitats and ecosystems on the Colorado Plateau. Whether by rafting, hiking, backpacking, trail building or studying ancient cliff dwellings, the Four Corners School has broadened the knowledge of both tourists and residents.

Now Ross feels it’s time for a unique place-based learning center in southeast Utah. Total projected cost for the Canyon Country Discovery Center, a public-private partnership between the Four Corners School and the City of Monticello, is $8.5 million. Over $3.2 million has already been raised.

The Discovery Center will be the new home of the Four Corners School and supporters hope it will serve as a destination point for the 2 million visitors who travel across the plateau and through Monticello each year. It will also cater to local and regional schools and residents interested in sustainability, which is why the architecture and construction of the Discovery Center will showcase LEED certified building materials and techniques. Ross believes, “We’re on the main highway so everyone can see us. People are going to drive in and visit our programs.” She adds, “We want to be inviting to all cultures on the Plateau,” so all activities and interpretation will include English, Spanish and Navajo.

Supporters have crafted a market feasibility study, a business plan and are seeking funds through the Economic Development Administration of the Department of Commerce. Goals include serving 35,000 people onsite, including school groups, and 97,000 through outreach programs that will feature, according to Ross, “a whole menu of activities tied to the core curriculum for people to participate in.” Conference space will accommodate 150 visitors. Teacher training in the new facility will highlight bioregional education.

Sound ambitious? Yes, but Ross worked has worked for Outward Bound, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service as a backcountry ranger, wilderness specialist and recreation crew leader. A graduate of Prescott College, she believes in place-based education and has a master’s degree in experiential education. The Four Corners School has served participants from age 6 to 90, has given 200 teacher scholarships, and protected over 28 archaeological sites on public lands.

At the groundbreaking ceremonies for the Discovery Center, Utah author and photographer Stephen Trimble stated, “Citizens of the Colorado Plateau spend a lot of time arguing about the highest and best use of this bedrock West ... We do well to take the long view. That is more or less the mission of this building.”

Trimble added, “The people who will make their lifelong homes here and the visitors who are newly discovering the canyon country, both will learn from this center’s educators the value of service, the joy of adventure, the sweet sense of refuge that comes with belonging to a community, and the gratifying responsibility to conserve the natural and cultural heritage of the Colorado Plateau.”

Dreams in dry places? Perhaps. But why not plan for a visitor center, yurt, hogans, a meditation area, conference/education center, a night sky observatory, trails, outdoor classroom and demonstration gardens — all celebrating the Colorado Plateau.

Build it and they will come? Why not? They’re already coming across the Plateau as tourists, families, and foreigners from France, Germany, and Japan. Can we bridge the Old West of cattle ranching, mining and lumbering with the New West of outdoor recreation and retirees soaking up scenery? For some, the Next West will blend both old and new in a stable economy that uses, but not abuses, natural resources and preserves and protects cultural resources that can be destroyed but never replaced.

I hope to find some answers at the Canyon Country Discovery Center. Navajo Chief Manuelito said that education was the key, the ladder to success. He was right.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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