Ecology of the Southwest

Students study in the Southwest during J-term 2016.

What the course catalog says:

This course will focus on the ecology of the Southwest desert, particularly on the adaptations of organisms to arid conditions and ecological aspects of human water use. We will spend our time primarily in southern Arizona, with a few stops in Colorado, Utah, and northern Arizona. Activities will include hiking in the Grand Canyon, camping in the Sonoran Desert, learning the common plants and animals of the desert, discussing current environmental challenges and solutions, and carrying out a field project.

What the professor says:

Ecology of the Southwest grew out of my experiences before I arrived at Luther and despite the fact that I hadn’t spent much time in Arizona before I began to teach it. The course tries to understand the ecology of the area, and the challenges of making environmental decisions. I've been aware of those obstacles all my life: my father was an executive for a timber company and I wrote software for a sawmill in my first job. Logging paid for my college education even as I was organizing letter drives to Congress to try to protect old growth forests.

I had two goals for students in this class. First, I wanted them to understand how scientists carry out ecological research, and how scientific knowledge meets up with differing values in decision making on public lands. For instance, below the Glen Canyon dam, Arizona Game and Fish works to keep a healthy population of rainbow trout. A few miles farther downstream, they've worked to remove rainbow trout to protect an endangered fish. I want students to understand the complexity, sometimes scientific and more often societal, that leads to situations like these. Studying in Colorado and Arizona allows students to see every issue that we discuss firsthand.

The course ends with students carrying out an independent project in the desert. I always hope they'll become excited about answering their questions, their curiosity will expand as they look more closely, and they’ll fall in love with the arid Southwest. Most of the time, students dive into their project and connect with the land.

Eric Baack, associate professor of biology

What a student says:

I chose to take this course because the Southwest was not an area I was very familiar with, and I was excited about having new experiences all while camping and hiking.

One of my favorite activities we did was hike from Lee’s Ferry. The hike itself was up the side of a cliff and a little steep at times, but the views of the other cliffs and river below were incredible. From the top, we could see the Navajo generating station and land managed by the National Park Service. We had previously read about water rights, and after spending a few days in the desert, we understood their significance. For me, it really helped me connect how policy (in this case, water rights), biology, and people with different interests (the Navajo Reservation, and others nearby) all come together. Another highlight was staying at the field station. I liked having a home base instead of being in a new place every night or two. It gave us the opportunity to go into more detail on the topics and time to explore on our own.

One of the challenging parts of the course was our last group hike to the Florida Saddle. The climb was beautiful, but the elevation gain was just under 4,000 feet and took us about eight hours, which made it a mental hike as well as a physical one.

This course helped me learn a lot about biology and ecology, but I also discovered that there can be a lot of overlap between environmental policy, water rights, and land use, in addition to the biology. Also, being from the Midwest, cactus and other desert plants were pretty foreign to me. By the end the trip, I could identify a large variety of plants in the southwest.

—Lucia Holte