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The future of environmental leadership in Montana

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By Caitlin Styrsky Explore Big Sky Contributor

LAKEVIEW, Mont. – Global climate change is evident even here in Montana – above normal temperatures this winter prompted Yellowstone National Park to close early to snowmobile tours due to a low snowpack.

The changing climate highlights a need for creative and effective environmental leadership, and one university aims to raise this awareness and shape the next generation of environmental leaders.

Located in Lakeview, in southwest Montana’s Centennial Valley, the Taft-Nicholson Center for Environmental Humanities Education is a University of Utah endeavor that fosters environmental consciousness and literacy, and creates personal relationships with nature and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Taft-Nicholson offers coursework for students in U of U’s Environmental Humanities graduate program, and partners with regional universities while providing workshops and educational opportunities for the greater Montana community.

The 16-acre property is a former stagecoach stop en route to Yellowstone National Park. Lakeview was all but deserted when stagecoach traffic declined due to the rise of the automobile around the turn of the century. But in 2005, Centennial Valley landowners and environmental philanthropists John and Melody Taft teamed up with fellow landowners Bill and Sandi Nicholson to purchase the land and restore the town’s 24 original buildings.

After a three-year partnership with U of U, the families formally gifted the property to the university in 2014.

“We are connecting students to the Centennial Valley, which is an extraordinary place to transform, deepen, or enliven academic studies,” said Frank Carter, the center’s Regional Director of Communications and Development.

The Centennial Valley location provides students with opportunities to participate in hands-on fieldwork and research through a rich network of regional partners. Students collaborate with the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge – a wetland-riparian habitat and migratory bird haven – as well as the local Nature Conservancy chapter and the Centennial Valley Association, an organization of landowners that protect the landscape and support the regional ranching culture.

The valley has the largest wetland network in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, is home to headwaters of the Missouri River and is an integral east-west wildlife migration corridor.

“Students are able to expand their academic disciplines through on-the-ground engagement, whether it’s through the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, the Nature Conservancy, or the traditional ranching culture,” Carter said.

The center is open June through October and offers a number of courses focused on ecology, environmental sustainability, and creative writing led by a distinguished faculty. Renowned conservationist and author Terry Tempest Williams leads the Ecology of Residency course, which includes fieldwork, writing, class discussions and guest speakers set against the backdrop of the rugged valley. Students not only participate in specialized fieldwork, but are immersed in an atmosphere that inspires creative problem solving.

“The Centennial Valley is a place of inspiration and restoration,” said Williams, adding that the vastness of the valley grants an important perspective to her students.

Montana State University, Weber State University and Utah State University have all hosted environmental education programs through the center, and the University of Montana plans to offer a course during the 2015 season. In addition, the center operates an artist-in-residence program as well as coursework for students from U of U’s creative writing program.

Community outreach and regional inclusivity are also important goals. Symposiums and workshops are open to the public, and include the 2014 “Reimagine Western Landscape Symposium” and the upcoming “Tutored by the Land: A Writing and Photography Workshop” with Stephen Trimble, an award-winning writer and photographer of the American West. The center also hosts seasonal gatherings to bring together the CVA, the historical society, and other community members in celebration of the region’s legacy.

More than just a university extension, the Taft-Nicholson Center is shaping the future of environmental leadership – by bridging the gap between science and the humanities – while integrating the Centennial Valley, regional partners, and the larger Montana community.

Montana State University and University of Utah students on their final day at the Taft-Nicholson Center.

Montana State University and University of Utah students on their final day at the Taft-Nicholson Center.

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