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

Read the Latest Journal Entry

The Snake Valley and Great Basin National Park—A Western treasure

October 30, 2017

Kara Hall

Before the expedition I had never really even heard of Great Basin National Park, let alone made the lonely highway trek to its unassuming location among the sage brush sea that has found its iconic imagery into every Western imagination. From the highway the Great Basin and Snake Valley area seem to be a sea of lonely monotony, only interrupted by simple groves of a few trees and abandoned mechanical equipment of all varieties. Named for its lack of drainage, the rivers and streams of the Great Basin rarely find and outlet to the sea and thus its water collects in shallow lakes, marshes, and mud flats to be evaporated back into the dry and hungry desert air. The phrase "water is life" takes on a physical meaning here, taking its place at the dinner tables and community discussions across the valley as its members remain unified and defiant against the Las Vegas water grab scheme that has its eye on the remaining aqueduct lying wait underneath the thousands of acres of the Snake Valley.

Water in the Great Basin region has a history dating back to the time before Lake Bonneville, whose shorelines can be seen at home in the Slat Lake Valley as well as 10 miles from the Great Basin Visitor's Center where a lapping shoreline was evident 15,000 years in the past. As ice age glaciers, ever moving and carving, occupied the high peaks of the region, the air was cooler and gave rise to bristlecone forests that date up to 3,000 plus years of age. At a bristlecone grove near the Wheeler Peak hiking trail we strolled through trees standing older than Christ and human history, more dead than alive and as beautiful as ever. The growth of these trees is characteristically slow and highly able to adapt to their environment, as groves appear from 9,500 to 11,000 feet in elevation. It seems we can take a lesson from the bristlecone pine, as adversity is its most driving force in fostering its life-force through millennia of change. The growth rings of trees and their ability to record the past is evident in bristlecone pines as their ring data has contributed to the history of past climate conditions in various regions, and thus its change over time. Analysis of such growth rings in the bristlecone has improved the accuracy and precision in the radiocarbon dating of ancient organic materials found in many other places.

Similar to that of the ocean, the Great Basin sits wide and foreboding, an inlet sea of desert with archipelagoes of high elevation mountain ranges that host a broad range of life that would simply not survive int he harsh lower elevations. These ranges effectively become a desert oasis for its many dependents, as well as humans like us that come to enjoy hiking and taking part in another manifestation of "America's best idea."

Great Basin Bristlecone Pine

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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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