Undergraduate Academic Affairs

April 22, 2020

Field report: Honors course explores whether national parks are in progress or peril

Jenelle Birnbaum

Triptych of coast, Mt. Rainier and Diablo Lake.

This course will take students on an exciting two week field study to the three “wilderness jewels” of Washington state’s national parks, Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades, and follow with class time in autumn quarter. Students should be comfortable hiking moderately strenuous trails almost every day of the trip, camping in remote locations, and traveling and lodging in primitive and close quarters. Through a combination of immersed field study readings and expert speakers, students will not only introduce themselves to these diverse and unique places in our country, but also gain a greater understanding of the purpose of such a system, and look critically at the cultural and environmental issues impacting the National Parks today.

— Excerpt from the course description for “Honors 230: Parks in Progress or Peril?”

When junior Rhyannon Hayes, a political science and history major and environmental studies minor, read the course description for “Honors 230: Parks in Progress or Peril?” she thought it would be a cool experience, a great intro to backpacking and a fun way to explore the Pacific Northwest while satisfying requirements for the UW Honors Program.

Portrait of Mckenzie Carlson, Aidan DeHan, Rhyannon Hayes, Matthew Tucker and Niki Kafie.

Over the course of the two week field study, the students became close friends. Pictured here, from left to right, are Mckenzie Carlson, Aidan DeHan, Rhyannon Hayes, Matthew Tucker and Niki Kafie.

Before this class, Hayes had only been to two national parks in her life. She had hiked only a little and camped in traditional campgrounds, but never backpacked or camped in the backcountry. By the end of the two week field study, she’d visited Washington’s three major national parks: Mount Rainier, Olympic and the North Cascades, had trekked more than 50 miles and spent 11 nights camping. She learned to love dehydrated meals and mastered how to keep a fire alive through rain and the season’s first snow. Days spent hiking and evenings spent chatting around the campfire gave Hayes and her classmates time to bond. She left the class with a solid group of friends.

Photo of the class with Mt. Rainier in the background.

Honors students and instructors in the course “Honors 230: Parks in Progress or Peril” at Mount Rainier, the first of three national parks they visited and studied. National park experts regularly joined the class. Author Jeff Antonelis-Lapp, pictured on the far right, led the class on a hike through the Sunrise part of the park.

The two week field study gave nine interdisciplinary honors students the opportunity to explore national parks, learn from a variety of experts, observe firsthand how people interact with the park, and decide through their own lived experiences if and why these spaces matter in our collective culture. The course — taught by Honors Program and UAA staff members Aley Mills Willis, Brook Kelly and Laura Harrington — continued as a campus-based seminar through autumn quarter.

Photo of class hiking in forest

The first part of the UW Honors program class “Parks in Progress or Peril” took students to Washington’s three national parks: Mount Rainier, Olympic and the North Cascades. The course continued as a seminar through autumn quarter, where students grappled with the central question: are parks in progress or peril?

Photo of Laura Harrington, Brook Kelly and Aley Mills Willis at North Cascades National park

Course instructors, from left, Laura Harrington, Brook Kelly and Aley Mills Willis.

“If this field study was our buffet of information, experience and sensation, then the autumn discussion section was our digestion of the material,” explains bioengineering major Matt Tucker.

The field study/seminar combination is the latest iteration of a 10-year collaboration between the Honors program and the national parks. “Our goals,” explains instructor Mills Willis, “are to take a unique, enormous and inherently interdisciplinary idea like national parks and break it open, exposing students firsthand to the variety of passions and perspectives that brought these places into existence and those that will preserve them. We want students to grapple with the complex natural and cultural histories of these places, their evolution, and their current and more fragile states. And, we want them to confront that while walking up a mountain trail, peering into a coastal tide pool or visiting significant cultural sites of our region’s native tribes.”

Field learnings: Exploring Makah history and Shi Shi Beach

Photo of students on the beach listening to Dave Conca

Olympic National Park archaeologist Dave Conca (sitting on the sand next to the campfire) accompanied the class on a two night backpacking trip. He led the class on a tour of the Makah Tribal Museum and a hike to Shi Shi Beach, where the students discussed what they learned in the museum and applied it to the land they were walking on and the issues the park is navigating.

Dave Conca, Olympic National Park archaeologist, has been collaborating with Kelly, Harrington and Mills Willis for more than a decade. “​Working with the UW instructors and students is one of the highlights of my entire work year,” says Conca. The high level of engagement with students, their level of sophistication regarding questions and discussion around complex issues continues to amaze and humble me.” Conca finds it so invigorating that he includes it in his annual work plan.

This year, Conca led the class through the Makah Tribal Museum, which tells the story of the Makah Tribe through a collection of artifacts found at Ozette Village site. This group of artifacts provides a uniquely complete story, since the village was preserved as the result of a landslide in the 1700s. Then, while hiking to Shi Shi Beach, Conca discussed how what they saw in the museum related to the land they were walking on. “The students’ observations and questions spur my thinking. After more than 26 years in the field, you can become complacent. Their questions and observations help keep me fresh.”

Shi Shi Beach averages around 300 people a weekend through the summer. The recent uptick in visitors puts a strain on the finite number of campsites, rangers and other park resources. This raises many questions: Are current management tactics — education through permitting and enforcement through park rangers patrolling the beaches — working?  Is the current usage harming the parks’ ecosystems? Are the parks being loved to death? Should park guests be limited? How would limiting guests impact the Makah Tribe’s economy?

Students backpacking on the beach

The class backpacks on Shi Shi Beach where they’ll be camping for the night.

Field learnings: Park advocacy applies to all fields

Collaboration and partnership is essential for how national parks come to be, and how they are managed for the future. Modeling that for students in the structure of the course itself was essential.

Meeting with subject matter experts like Conca is part of the course’s engagement with the history, relevance and evolution of America’s National Park Service, as well as its central question: Is the idea of national parks progressing, or is it in peril? Interdisciplinary exploration is at the foundation of the Honors curriculum, and this class was no exception. Additional speakers ranged from scientists to artists to activists, who all shared their unique perspectives and interest in these places. The guests included the acting superintendent and the volunteer manager of Mount Rainier National Park, UW scientists, the authors of books outlining the natural and political histories of Mount Rainier and North Cascades National Parks, photographers, poets, historians, exhibit builders and a program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

Community, environment and planning student Becca Fogel reflects, “Before this class, educating about and advocating for the national parks seemed like a fairly siloed endeavor rooted deep in environmental science and geology — things I’m interested in but not necessarily very passionate about. But our in-class meetings provided me with a better understanding of the far-reaching interdisciplinarity of the Park Service mission.”

Photo of a student with her field journal.

Students kept field journals, where they responded to daily prompts about what they were experiencing to “push their powers of observation and understanding of the course material.” Directions included reciting their observations out loud and drawing a couple of their entries. Pictured here: Niki Kafie.

Students kept daily field journals, led group discussions, engaged with course readings and daily class sessions in the field and prepared a final case management project and reflective field journal presentation. The connections made with guest speakers gave students a panel of experts to turn to when working on their parks management case studies.

Hayes, along with group members Andrew Ryan and Nathan Ji, researched the topic of noise pollution in Olympic National Park from Growler jets flying out of the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island. To understand the diverse perspectives, the group connected with Graham Taylor of the NPCA, the superintendent of Olympic National Park, and the public affairs officer for Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. “What I really appreciated in working with Graham was that we were able to have a very open and honest conversation about [his experiences] communicating with the Navy to try to have more thorough and comprehensive environmental impact studies,” explains Hayes, who grew up in a Navy family.

To present their results, the three students created, narrated and recorded an audio experience, voiced by them and spearheaded by the group’s “creative genius,” Ryan. The soundtrack took the class through the park in a “magic tent,” similar to a field trip on “The Magic School Bus,” talking about issues with the experts. Hayes describes it as “the most creative project” she’s been a part of.

Field learnings: UW students start NPCA Northwest Student Leadership Council

Photo of McKenzie Carlson and Rhyannon Hayes at tabling event.

McKenzie Carlson (left) and Rhyannon Hayes (right) helped start the NPCA Northwest Student Leadership Council. “We’re loving this opportunity to provide students with opportunities to explore our parks, learn of the challenges and develop the leadership skills we need to honor these places,” says Graham Taylor of the NPCA.

As a result of collaborating on the case study, Taylor invited Hayes to help start a NPCA Northwest Student Leadership Council. Hayes recruited classmates Aidan DeHan, Niki Kafie and McKenzie Carlson to launch the group. This new NPCA council, which formed in February, held two events: hosting a recruitment table at the environmental career fair and supporting  Taylor in a presentation about North Cascades grizzly bear reintroduction to a class on threatened and endangered species. Following his talk, Hayes and Carlson spoke with students about continuing their conservation work with their council. Their membership is now up to 11 students.

The NPCA talks are open to anyone interested in attending. See the lineup for the upcoming Park Talks.

The next two events, a service project on Ebey’s Landing and an advocacy tabling event on Earth Day, had to be cancelled due to public health guidance and efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Still, the group is eager to continue their work and holds weekly Zoom meetings featuring national park experts giving talks and answering audience questions. Speakers so far have included: author and North Cascades expert Lauren Danner; president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial Association Clarence Moriwaki; and, on April 23, 2020, author and Mount Rainier expert Jeff Antonelis-Lapp. Hayes’ future plans include collaborating with Carlson, who is president of the UW Hiking Club, to lead hikes and backpacking trips talking with students about issues the national parks are facing and how the NPCA can help. Their mission is to advocate for these beloved wild spaces, so national parks can be enjoyed by future generations.

Field learnings: I can start my conservation work now

In the future, Hayes hopes to continue this work as an elected official and form the first national park in her home state of Pennsylvania. Her vision includes creating a public education space that tells the story of the lands making up the park, the people who’ve lived there, the evolution of the land and our role in protecting it for future generations. Pictured from left to right: McKenzie Carlson, Rhyannon Hayes, Matthew Tucker and Aidan DeHan.

Reflecting on the class, Hayes shares that it “marked one of two turning points I’ve had in my college career in which I took a newly ignited passion, in this case for national parks, and created opportunity. It took me deeper into the wilderness than I had ever been and helped me fall even more deeply in love with the natural world. I learned from all the speakers and in the case of Graham and the NPCA, I found a place where I could take my new knowledge, combine it with my skills in constituent relations and government, and actually become a part of conservation work. I always knew environmental issues were a priority that I wanted to incorporate into my future career, but because of this class, I get to start that work now.”

Photos courtesy of students and instructors in Honors 230: Parks in Progress or Peril.