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.

Meet the Expedition

Learn More About the Students and Faculty on the Expedition

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An Underground Palace

October 25, 2017

Maria Nappi

We arrived in the Lehman Caves Visitors Center at Great Basin National Park and met with the ranger, Becky. She started the tour by asking if any of us had been underground with any of the things we had on and naturally all 17 of us said we had been in the Butte Mine. The major reason for asking was so that we could sanitize our shoes due to the horrible fungus that has been spreading through bats: white nose syndrome. The fungus was brought over from Europe and made its first contact in New York.

Inside a Cave

We entered the cave through the primary entrance tunnel that the national parks service had created in the 1920s. To start the tour we walked by the entrance that was used originally, which was a rope rappel without a harness followed by down-climbing and use steep sketchy wooden stairs to descend into the cave. The system was created by Mr. Lehman who discovered the cave on his property in the 1880s. The main story told goes that Mr. Lehman and his horse fell into the entrance to the cave and were stuck there for four days; his neighbors brought them food and water until they could get them out. He started exploring, going down into the cave only with a sledge hammer and a miner's candle which would burn for about three hours. He used the sledge hammer to knock down different treasures that have taken thousands of years to form in order to make a path and begin a tour company. The tours started running in the 1890s and was the first time underground recreation in the United States occurred. The tours kept going as the property was sold, and eventually the land was donated to the town who then donated it to the federal government. In 1922 it was declared the Lehman Cave National Monument.

Tours continued to run. The cave was used by many different groups including the ELKs Lodge for their business meetings and socials when they would have full meals, bands, and dancing. It was also used to camp in. Below you can see the inside of a stalactite that was damaged by Lehman.

Stalactites in a Cave

When we entered the first large room we experienced complete darkness which was crazy. When all the lights are off and there's no light at all, it is weird how my eyes tried to make light out of anything, but there was nothing. I could not even see my hand being held in front of my face. When the lights came back on I was overwhelmed by the huge rock formations called stalactites which are formed by calcite that is deposited one drop of water at a time.

They being forming as soda straws which are the start of stalactites and called that because they are small hollow cylindrical formations.

Stalactites Forming in Cave

When they are larger they are stalactites. If they come up from the ground the formation is a stalagmite, and when they connect they're called columns. These different formations along with many other types including cave bacon, shields, helictites, and more make this limestone cave unique and beautiful. The cave itself was very easy to travel through since the park service installed lights and cement walkway, and Mr. Lehman had already done a good job at destroying plenty of structures in the cave to make it easy to navigate. So the park service allegedly didn't destroy any more in the making of the entrance and exit tunnels, the cement path, or installing the lighting (which I find hard to believe).

Thin Stalactites in Cave

The cave is accessible for most people and tours run daily from the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. 11/10 would recommend and it is less than four hours from Salt Lake City with no national park entrance fee! No excuses, this should be on your list!

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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).

Expedition Route

Course Descriptions


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