Guest Column: The Center for Wilderness Art and Science

By Jay Sullivan, Ph.D.
Special to the Herald Times
RBC | I was sound asleep. Lightning flashed, thunder rolled and I heard echoes of Adventure Center fade into the distance like a vanishing fossil fueled beast. I saw it replaced by visions of a dome over a wave pool illuminated by tanning lamps and joyous laugher surrounding sand castles and surfers. My dream self rejoiced in the fun of play in a wilderness retreat blessed by wildlife and snot rocks. Snot rocks? What the heck are they doing in this dream? It was like being hit in the face with a bucket of ice water. I looked slowly around. Acid rain trickled down the dome. Air pollution from fires to the south, west and north of us cut visibility to about 3 miles. It will snow sometime and clear the air, don’t worry. Sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, accumulations of heavy metals colored our pristine wilderness dead gray. Mule deer, elk and moose in the shabby dress of chronic wasting disease told stories of what was here once upon a time. I could hear the nightmare screaming.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife hunting map of Colorado shows that mule deer herds from Steamboat Springs to Grand Junction across the Flat Tops and Roan Plateau have CWD infection rates of around 50 percent of the herds. Elk herd infection rates according to the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife are 30 percent. Researchers say that they are fairly certain what causes the spread of the disease but don’t really know what to do about it. As one rancher said, “I’m worried, what will we eat?”
The Environmental Protection Agency calls the White River snot rocks a nuisance bloom. The fish call it death. The people running water purification in Rangely call hundreds of pounds of it a day unprintable names. It’s OK, winter will clear the water.
Houston, we have a problem.
As a community, we are focused on bringing an Adventure Center to Meeker so that we can tune up our bow strings. We are told that recreation is the wave of the economic future. Really? What future?
“What if…” we built a center for Wilderness Art and Science. What if our intent was to put our brains to work giving life to the wilderness that surrounds us? What if we challenged ourselves to come up with answers that eliminate the spread of disease into and out of the wilderness? What if we didn’t discount the tragedy of our water quality as a “nuisance” and instead tackled the problem’s cause and effect head on? What if we make our world worth living in?
There is great joy in doing things that make a difference. There are a lot of graduates of environmental science programs looking for good jobs that matter. There are even more students wanting to become environmental scientists. One third of the job is solving the problems. Another third is communicating knowledge in a way that turns problems into solutions. I was once told that there is nothing more practical than a good theory because knowledge based on disciplined problem solving makes a difference with little wasted effort. The final third of the job is money. Bucks and greenbacks that are the basis of an exchange of value.
Let’s talk money. I propose we fund this enterprise with grants from the EPA, National Science Foundation, Centers for Disease Control, and other organizations in search of worthy causes. We form associations with educational institutions seeking a gateway to the wilderness. We use support from all of Rio Blanco County to build the infrastructure of the entire community dedicated to a sustainable environment. We use the results of research as an outreach to everyone with world class problems to solve. Our laboratory stretches a hundred miles from the rain forests of the Flat Tops to the Deserts of the Colorado Utah border. We can experiment soaking wet and dry as a bone. We have all climate conditions of an incredible laboratory in our back yard. Our world has answers to problems in wildlife management, watershed management, medicine, energy development, and, in short, all wet and dry sciences. Our geology has secrets animated in dinosaur bones a million years old and as new as last year’s summer fallow. Our dinosaurs are so new they have the skin on their fossil bones. Our environment is unique. We must learn what it means to be green. Find the key. Can we sell knowledge? In the Grand Tetons around Jackson Hole there is a science center. I wonder what they do there? There are education centers across the country that teach everything from the names of plants to the skills of rock climbing and river rafting. There are outdoor education centers that teach about our world. How to survive seems to be a key skill. What better way to get out the messages from our Wilderness Art and Science Center? We could build curriculum for all levels of science and conservation of the wilderness. Wilderness Education could be an incredible summer camp. Is this a commercial opportunity?
With high speed internet and other communication technologies we can make this laboratory and what we learn here accessible to the world. Maybe we can’t all go to Harvard but we sure can bring Harvard, The University of Denver, Colorado State University, Princeton, Stanford and other world class institutions here. Further, we could be that place where they have a wilderness laboratory ripe for study. An outcome could be that those who enter our wilderness in search of the knowledge that preserves and enhances our world makes it better. We are faced with problems that, unless we solve them, we will cease to exist. No worries, this is all FAKE NEWS.
So why a center for Wilderness “ART” and Science? Have you ever noticed how scientists are reluctant to come to conclusions based on their research? They are the masters of the disclaimer with comments like, “Of course, this needs more study” or “We couldn’t account for these factors so more study is needed.” Now, have you also noticed that artists are uninhibited. They are unabashed self-promoters. Artists are also the conscience of a community. Art is the wild hare that instigates a race with a turtle. Art puts pictures in the picture book and illustrates the graphic novel. When all else fails, art communicates. If you are going to reach out, do it artfully. Art and science, together, are incredible collaborators.
Imagine what our children and grandchildren gain living in a community that celebrates what the mind can do. Imagine the gains within a community that celebrates intelligence and nurtures the discipline that sharpens that intelligence. Think of the global opportunities nurtured by creation. When you go to sleep dream of what you have that is disappearing and then dream of what you can do. The nightmare peacefully grazes verdant wilderness meadows.

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