What began as the Modern Outdoor Recreation Ethics course winter field trip to explore Joshua Tree National Park in San Bernardino County, California, turned into an unexpected and complicated lesson in the real-world consequences of the country’s longest-ever government shutdown.
“Laurentians are doers and helpers,” says Devin Farkas, assistant director of the Outdoor Program at St. Lawrence and the leader of the excursion from Jan. 6 to 14. “If someone’s pitching in to help, we wouldn’t give a second thought to join the effort.”
The nine-day field component studies how humans affect ecosystems, incorporating rock climbing and exploration of the national park. In this case, there was also an unexpected political component. With parks closed, many visitors were outraged, and some took advantage of the absence of park rangers to vandalize numerous trees and facilities, leaving with heavy damages.
Images of the felled Joshua Trees cracked open on the desert ground, graffiti scarring the rock formations, large amounts of litter and mounds of trash, and visitor bathrooms in disrepair went viral and were just a few examples of the consequences of leaving the parks unattended during the shutdown.
“On the second day of our trip, the superintendent of the park declared that it would close in two days,” Farkas explains. “That sparked a monumental effort to clean the park, spearheaded by a local named Rand Abbott.”
The group was forced to come up with a plan and turned what began as an academic experience into a service learning operation, joining forces with other volunteers to make a difference.
“The conversation between Farkas and Abbott was simply the most inspiring part of the trip for me,” says Placido Ramallo ’21, a philosophy major on the trip. “You could hear the pure love and respect Abbott had for the land around us. He explained to us how he thought it was his duty to keep the parks perfect for other visitors to enjoy its pure beauty. I couldn’t agree more.”
Ramallo’s classmate, Raina Freedman ’21, agrees. “As we were staying near the park and climbing every day, we were able to feel a connection to the beautiful landscape and felt inspired to want to protect it,” she says.
“Modern Outdoor Recreation Ethics takes place in a variety of locations,” Farkas explains. “It has been going to Joshua Tree for the past seven years due to the ecology, rock formation and rich history included in the park. It leads to great discussions back at SLU about how we can adapt our behaviors to protect the environment in the Northeast.”
The perspective shifted in many St. Lawrence students’ eyes to understand the takeaway of the political overlap with environmental stewardship. “We have a responsibility as visitors in these beautiful parks. We need to learn to leave it better then we found it for not only the next generation to experience, but also for the real inhabitants of the land,” says Ramallo. “This goes for any part of our Earths’ ecological systems. It is all important and it influences the world when the atmosphere is rocked by any means, both natural disasters and political struggles.”
Freedman, who is majoring global studies and environmental studies with a minor in outdoor studies, adds: “In that short week, it reinforced my desire to work in outdoor education. With locals and tourists all taking part in the clean-up and a reassurance of the park’s protection for generations to come, it made me realize how much I want to lead trips across the country and educate people on how to best to preserve and protect all that mother nature has to offer, even when faced with political upheaval.”
During nightly discussions reflecting back on the day, Farkas reflects, “It became clear to me that our sense of environmental stewardship for the Adirondacks is not exclusive to the North Country.” He concludes, “The one day we spent volunteering in the park was the most impactful learning experience we never could have planned.”