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Indiana State students gain new insights in America's "Last Best Place"

June 12, 2015

Answers to some of the most pressing issues in Yellowstone National Park seemed pretty straightforward to a group of Indiana State University students before they journeyed to the nation's first national park in early May.

But it was evident that nothing is cut and dry about the decades-long economic and environmental controversies swirling around the park, as 13 students - eight from a Natural Resources and Public Economics course this spring semester and five students who participated as part of an optional component for three spring semester communication courses.

"Some issues simply do not have a solution that makes absolutely everyone happy," said Leah Carter, a sophomore pre-med student from Fairfield, Ill., who plans to pursue concentrations in biology and chemistry. "What I learned was that just because I feel that something should be a certain way does not mean that the solution has to exactly match what I want. Instead, compromise is of utmost importance."

While learning that only about 10 percent of West Yellowstone, Mont. residents participate in government-sponsored open comment sessions, Carter, who was eager to learn more about the political system and its influence in decision-making, believes discussion and immersion in controversy is the best way to reach a compromise that is suitable to all sides.

"If more people would participate, I think, the park and the town would develop policies that better reflect the views of citizens," she said.

The group split time between the gateway communities of West Yellowstone and Gardiner, Mont., where they heard firsthand accounts from groups most impacted by issues like the possibility of bison that might carry brucellosis - a disease that could wipe out their cattle herds, roaming onto their land.

They learned about debates on snowmobile-use in the park, the reintroduction of wolves a decade ago that has led to predation outside the park's boundaries and dabbled in bioprospecting and fire management.

While the experience was an opportunity to travel out West, it also allowed Elinor Balensuela, a senior English major from Terre Haute, to learn about how the issues in Yellowstone are communicated to the public.

"I am much more aware of both sides of the issues now and I feel like I'm more opened-minded," she said. "After talking to people involved in all the issues and seeing their work in action, it's made me question my views. I see that there's no clear answer to any of the issues, although both sides are passionate about their beliefs."

The more perspectives the group took in, the clearer it became to economics major Max Short that there are no clear answers for what plagues Yellowstone.

"It seemed that the National Park Service was probably more objective than other groups, buteverybody had a valid argument for why they feel a certain way about the issues and I didn't expect that," said Short, a senior from Terre Haute.

Ten years ago, John Conant, chair of the economics department and the course instructor, and former Indiana State biology department chair Charles Amlaner designed the summer Yellowstone experience after participating in the Stewardship of Public Lands Program as part of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities' American Democracy Project, a program that teaches faculty how to promote good citizenship and advocacy.

"We decided we could take secondary teachers to look at the science, policymaking process and economic factors that lead to public policy," Conant said. "We wanted to show them how to take passionately held beliefs and create policy."

This year, instead of teachers, the course was geared toward currently enrolled Indiana State students, Conant said, "to let our students see that the issues in Yellowstone are not all black and white."

The group went on a wolf watch for a better understanding of the importance tourist activities play in the economic viability of the gateway communities, and they spoke with ranchers, park officials and environmental groups, like the Buffalo Field Campaign, about operating in and around the park.

"The students get there and they have these preconceived notions of the people we're going to talk to, and then they actually met the ranchers, who were really good representatives, and even the Buffalo Field Campaign wasn't quite what they thought," said Chris McGrew, director of Indiana State's Center for Global Engagement, who has been involved in the trip since its fruition. "It was really important for the students to hear these perspectives and challenge their own thinking, from an educational standpoint, because there is a lot of brain research to show that this kind of approach really helps."

It was the "heartfelt story" of Paradise Valley rancher Druska Kinkie that left a lasting impression on Natalie Erlenbaugh, a human and environmental systems major from Indianapolis who enrolled in Conant's economics course because of her goal to work for a national or state park.

"To be able to hear about some local issues in the country's first national park was a great opportunity for me as an undergraduate," Erlenbaugh said. "(Druska Kinkie), in particular, gave a very emotional talk about her farm and what the future holds for her farm if brucellosis is not eradicated in bison. I felt like I became more sympathetic for the locals on issues surrounding the wolves and bison, but I still kept my original opinions of the issues."

Because of her farming background, Carter found Kinkie's viewpoint relatable and interesting.

"I definitely agreed with the things that she said and she made me realize how complex the political system of Yellowstone really is," Carter said. "(Kinkie) was the perfect example of how to go about making a political change and stand up for something you're truly passionate about. I think everyone admired her presentation, even if they didn't agree with her views."

There was passion on both sides of the issues in Yellowstone, which caused Carter to consider taking on more active leadership positions in clubs she's involved in on campus and in her community.

"I learned the importance of thoroughly examining an issue from all perspectives, and I realized how important it is to be politically involved," she said. "I really need to do a better job at paying attention to local politics - not just national politics. The best way to make change nationally is to start locally."

It was an experience that put students at the center of Yellowstone's "complex, interrelated system," where Conant said issues of wildlife, environment, politics and advocacy often come to a head.

"Yellowstone is an incredible, beautiful and fascinating lab in which everything clashes and you can see it all more clearly there," he said. "The social science students can see how complex the science stuff is and a science student can see that it's not just a research paper being published that gets things done, but it takes a whole process to make change happen."

Contact: John Conant, chair, department of economics, Indiana State University, john.conant@indstate.edu

Writer: Betsy Simon, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-7972 or betsy.simon@indstate.edu

http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-Xcw5qcM/0/S/i-Xcw5qcM-S.jpg - Indiana Students pose for a photo during a trip to Yellow National Park in May, where they studied several controversial issues that have been ongoing in the park for decades.

http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-VKMktkQ/0/S/i-VKMktkQ-S.jpg - Indiana State students speak with Scott Waldron, retired Hebgen Basin Fire District chief, during a visit to Yellowstone National Park in May, where they learned about debates on snowmobile-use in the park, the reintroduction of wolves a decade ago that has led to predation outside the park's boundaries and dabbled in bioprospecting and fire management issues.

http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-nzFVHzr/0/S/i-nzFVHzr-S.jpg - A pair of grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park wanders near a group of Indiana State students, who visited the Montana side of park in May to learn about debates on snowmobile-use in the park, the reintroduction of wolves a decade ago that has led to predation outside the park's boundaries and dabbled in bioprospecting and fire management issues.

http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-tdv6Q9g/0/S/i-tdv6Q9g-S.jpg - A group of Indiana State students pose for a picture in Yellowstone  National Park, where they traveled to in May to learn about several controversial issues that have plagued the park for decades. including snowmobile-use in the park, the reintroduction of wolves a decade ago that has led to predation outside the park's boundaries, as well as bioprospecting and fire management issues.

Story Highlights

Thirteen Indiana State students headed to Yellowstone National Park in May to study controversial issues of public land and resource usage that have plagued the park for decades.

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