by Deanna Erickson
Learning from the Land
Anyone who has traveled through the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States will remember it distinctly as a place like no other. Towns are scarce, rivers are legendary and rocks seem to bend and twist toward a sky filled with harsh clear light. This is the Colorado Plateau, a region as marked by its geography as by its inhabitants. The land of the Navajo, Ute, Pueblo and Hopi, colonized by the pioneers, now includes a disparate mix of ranchers, miners, river runners, and migrants who landed here out of a general longing for vast and wild places. Gifted (or some would say cursed) with more National Parks then anywhere else in the country, Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas and vast tracts of National Forest, an inhabitant of the Colorado Plateau can hardly deny the significance of this unusual place.
In the middle of the Colorado Plateau, grappling with the wilderness and the human diversity, sits the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education. Since 1984, this small non-profit has quietly been connecting people with the land, fulfilling its’ mission of creating lifelong learning experiences for people of all ages and backgrounds through education, service, adventure, and conservation programs. Janet Ross, the Executive Director, founded the program after falling for the Plateau as an undergrad at Prescott College in Arizona. Originally, the school focused on programs dubbed “Southwest Edventures,” consisting of rollicking river trips, guided canyon hikes, and days spent tracing the rocky path of the Puebloan ancestors often referred to as the Anasazi.
In the late 1990’s, the outdoor industry began to set up shop on the Plateau. Big tour operators, with their heavyweight marketing tactics, made it clear that Four Corners School and its non-profit budget would need an alternate means of accomplishing its mission. In 1997, Ross, with her decades of experience in outdoor education, went to public school districts and simply asked them what they needed. Was it field trips? Trainings? Guided tours? The feasibility study lasted a year and interviews were conducted with superintendents, principals and teachers representing every school on the Colorado Plateau.
This is what the schools said: Field trips are one-shot wonders. The kids have a positive experience, but the long-term effect is limited and the input of resources is draining. Bring us a program that trains our teachers in outdoor education so that we can learn where we live. Our backyards are a potential classroom. Let’s take our students there.