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Course educates students on politics of land management

With the jagged blue outlines of the mountains rising to the west above the sprawling Mile High metropolis, it should be impossible for Denver’s inhabitants to undervalue the vast, wild lands that surround their civilized enclave.

U.S. Forest Service Recreation Planner Cat Luna shows DU students the evidence of illegal shooting at Left Hand Canyon near Boulder. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

U.S. Forest Service Recreation Planner Cat Luna shows DU students the evidence of illegal shooting at Left Hand Canyon near Boulder. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

But, according to DU lecturer Lisa Dale, many residents of Colorado — both natives and transplants — take public land for granted, even when it’s beneath their very feet.

“A lot of students like to go skiing but don’t realize that the only reason they are able to go skiing is because public lands exist,” says Dale, who teaches political science and environmental policy courses.

Each spring, Dale teaches the core curriculum course This Land is Your Land: The Politics of Public Land Management in the U.S., which aims to educate students on the philosophy, history, policies and conflicts that affect the management of public lands.

The course focuses on the West, where public lands account for almost 30 percent of the land base; that number is under 10 percent in the eastern U.S.

“Understanding public lands is understanding the West,” says Dale, who moved to Colorado from New York 20 years ago. “Without public lands we wouldn’t spend our weekends skiing, backpacking, riding mountain bikes or hiking. We’d spend them at the mall like they do on the East Coast.”

Students learn about public land policies — governing forest management, fire management, motorized and nonmotorized recreation, wildlife habitat protection and wilderness designation — and the resulting conflicts. The course also incorporates the disciplines of natural resource management, ecology, law and public administration.

The course “made me realize just how tenuous the balance is between our need for resources and our need to keep wild places relatively untouched,” says senior finance major Brad Pugh, who hails from Dayton, Ohio.

To emphasize the challenges of public land management, Dale requires students to attend a field trip outside of class. One such trip takes students to Left Hand Canyon just outside Boulder, Colo., where disputes between those opposed to recreational shooting and motorized vehicle use in the area and those in favor of such use have been particularly contentious.

Dale hopes that by understanding the issues — and how the process of policy formation allows for public input — students will take a stand.

“If we want public lands to persist, we have a vested interest in following events and being an advocate for what we care about.”

Cassandra Wich — a junior international studies major from Fort Collins, Colo. — intends to play her part.

After taking the course, she says, “I am more interested in seeing what Congress is doing in regards to environmental law. I have even considered going into the field after attending law school.”

And even if students never apply the knowledge they take from her course, Dale believes that the lessons are integral to a DU education.

“For students to graduate from a university in the West without realizing the context for where they live and why it matters would be incomplete.”

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