Gunnar Nurme climbs one of the park’s many rock faces traversed during the expedition. Photo by Devin Farkas.

Politics and the Outdoors

Chloe Mitchell ’21

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 is pitching in to help, we wouldn’t give a second thought to joining the effort.”

This nine-day field component studies how humans affect ecosystems, and it incorporates 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 the park with heavy damage.  

Images of the felled Joshua Trees cracked open on the desert ground, graffiti scarring the rock formations, large amounts of trash, and visitor bathrooms in disrepair went viral on the Internet and were just a few examples of the consequences from leaving the park 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, however he also found out that a monumental effort to clean the park was being spearheaded by a local named Rand Abbott.

red truck

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 from Fairport, New York, who took part in 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 beauty. And I couldn’t agree more.” 

Ramallo’s classmate, Raina Freedman ’21 of Brooktondale, New York, agrees. “As we were staying near the park and climbing every day, we felt a connection to the beautiful landscape and felt inspired  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 St. Lawrence about how we can adapt our behaviors to protect the environment in the Northeast.” 

The perspective shifted in many St. Lawrence students’ eyes as they understood 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 them better than 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 Earth’s 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.” 

“In that short week, it reinforced my desire to work in outdoor education,” says Freedman, who is majoring in global studies and environmental studies with a minor in outdoor studies. “With locals and tourists all taking part in the cleanup 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 preserve and protect all that Mother Nature has to offer, even when faced with political upheaval.” 

During nightly discussions reflecting on the day, Farkas says, “It became clear to me that our sense of environmental stewardship for the Adirondacks is not exclusive to the North Country. The one day we spent volunteering in the park was the most impactful learning experience we never could have planned.”