Westminster Expedition Students in the Open American West

During the 2017 Fall Semester, 14 students, two professors, and a program coordinator will load books, camping gear, and themselves into a couple of vans and hit the road for a semester-long tour of the American West.

The trip is designed as an exploration into the issues at the heart of the contemporary West. Students will earn 16 credits in environmental studies and history as they study Environmental Cooperation and Conflict, Landscape and Meaning, the History of Public Lands, and the Native West.

This prolonged journey into the field will allow us to learn directly from landscapes and ecosystems, as well as from people who live, work, and study in those places. Together, we expect to build a cohort of impassioned scholars with a particular breadth and depth of experiential knowledge who are equipped to build a better future for the West.

We will visit iconic, protected sites like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, contentious places like the Little Bighorn and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, working landscapes like the Butte Copper Mines, and communities from present-day Native nations to "New West" towns like Bend, Twisp, and Moab.

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"I Hate Tourists!"—The Tourist

October 21, 2017

Josee Stetich

The effects of tourism on the land did not originally strike me in the American West, but in the Global South. At Machu Picchu in Peru, I took this picture that not many people would think of when they think of Machu Picchu.

People come from all over the world to view the "lost city of the Incas." The place is a zoo. It's definitely not as "middle of nowhere" as the Incas intended it to be. Machu Picchu was a city built for 1000 people that 2500 people visit every single day of the year. 500 people can be found on the Inca Trail on any given day. According to our guide, they're thinking of restricting visitation even more due to erosion and death of tourists due to negligence. Aguas Calientes, the gateway village to Machu Picchu, has exploded (apparently within the last 10–15 years) with luxury hotels on dirt roads and wealthy folks asking where they can watch the Tour de France.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu

I noticed something similar in Yellowstone National Park. If I remember correctly, Yellowstone has the longest average visitor stay of all the national parks at 1.5 days. This gives visitors enough time to visit all of the drive-by attractions like Old Faithful or Grand Prismatic and get caught in a bear jam. Even with such a short average stay, Yellowstone is shouldering a burden with ~4 million tourists a year. Sewage, soil erosion, traffic, parking, invasive species, loss of wildlife, and safety are all part of this huge complicated monster of a problem that Machu Picchu, Yellowstone, Moab, Zion, and more have to tackle.


Group of People Taking Pictures

Old Faithful at Yellowstone
Taking in the beauty of Old Faithful and Beehive Geyser

Restricting visitation seems like the easy way out. Machu Picchu has and will continue to do it, but there are Peruvians who live and die in nearby Cusco (where many tourists fly into to go to Machu Picchu) who have never been able to go. There are folks from Salt Lake City that have never been to Utah's national parks. A four hour drive is feasible for some but impossible for others. It has become a destination for the privileged. It's also a money maker for the country. Havasupai Falls does a permit system as well because it is on the Havasupai Indian Reservation so restricting visitation is better for their livelihood and environment. However, the national parks aim to make nature more accessible, not necessarily a profit. "First come, first served" restrictions would be difficult because many national parks are off the beaten path so visitors can't just go home if they can't get in. Increasing the prices makes it less accessible to those who can't afford to pay or take time off work. Not to mention that if you can't cough up the cash required for the Old Faithful Inn or even a Super 8, camping is not cheap nor accessible for some. There's no rent to stay in a tent, but you still have to buy it.

Backpackers Hiking Down Trail
The first groups of tourists starting the 10 mile hike to Havasupai at 7 in the morning

I think Zion National Park has done a good job at accommodating for large numbers. They have introduced a shuttle system to take visitors through the small canyon. I'm not sure how well places like Yellowstone could implement that because of their sheer size. While I'd rather not be in the shuttle, I am just another tourist hating tourists. I am not unique or better than others because I consider myself well travelled, outdoorsy, or prefer national parks over Disneyland. Tourism is tourism. Whether we are in Glacier or Hawaii, we are seeing a staged image of the area. Paths, roads, and boardwalks are specifically placed for the viewers' experience. We think we're seeing an untouched landscape. Visitors to Salt Lake City won't come to Pioneer Park unless it's had its makeover (AKA removing the homeless people) for the Farmer's Market or Twilight Concert Series. If you pass through Cusco, Peru on your way to Machu Picchu, you probably won't notice all the poverty because it's not where the tourists are.

Mt Rainier from Parking Lot
A pristine view of Mt. Rainier from the visitors' center parking lot

Couple Sitting out on Deck
A couple drinks wine and enjoys the smokey sunset over Many Glacier Valley from the luxurious Many Glacier Hotel.

While we have talked about more complications than solutions as a group, a growing population should hopefully force us into finding a cure, which older folks cheerfully say is our future job as leisure becomes more of a commodity. We set aside national parks to protect them from development and extraction, but at what point are we deteriorating them and the surrounding communities?

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Expedition in the News

Two people on a canoe
Group of Students around Campfire

The Route

Our proposed route is an enormous figure eight, heading northwest first (because of potential early winter weather) and including Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Course-related sites include sites of environmental/cultural conflict or cooperation (e.g., Malheur National Wildlife Refuge; East Tavaputs Plateau tar sands; Klamath River dams; the Berkeley Pit, the Nevada Test Site, Owens Lake); National Parks (e.g., Yellowstone, North Cascades, Olympic, Redwood, Grand Canyon, Great Basin); wilderness areas (e.g., Bob Marshall, Glacier Peak); Native nations and sites (e.g., Burns Paiute, Coast Salish, Miwok, the Nez Perce trail, Colville, Pyramid Lake, Hopi); dam sites (e.g., Teton, Grand Coulee, Hoover, Hetch Hetchy, Snake River); and relevant towns/cities (e.g., Bozeman, Bend, Cody, Moab, Winthrop, Page).

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