Since 2004, the Colorado College State of the Rockies project has provided comprehensive, unbiased research on environmental issues facing the Rockies region. Under the banner of “Research, Report, Engage,” student-faculty collaboration led by professor Walt Hecox allows students to delve into regional issues and publish their research in the State of the Rockies Report Card, which is released every April. This release occurs during the State of the Rockies Conference, which brings together regional experts on pertinent issues to discuss and engage with the issues brought up in the Report Card.
The Rockies project continues to expand based on its successes. Recent additions to the project include expedition-based research and the Conservation in the West Poll, which surveys bi-partisan opinions in six Western states.
“I view the Rockies Project as one of the college’s signature programs and an important community, regional, even national resource,” President Jill Tiefenthaler said.
As one of the focuses of Tiefenthaler’s strategic plan is strengthening community and regional connections to CC, the State of the Rockies project illustrates one way this is already happening. The project’s $100,000+ budget each year is mostly provided by the college, with various grants and donations to supplement.
The research done by students has made visible contributions to the region.
“This year, CC seniors were able to brief the governor of Colorado and the Secretary of the Interior about what they believed would be action items to save the Colorado River Basin,” Hecox said.
Regional impacts are also visible through the Conservation in the West survey. This survey, which was just released for its third year in a row, gathers opinions on conservation, land use, energy, and other environmental issues from diverse demographic groups in six western states.
“This is the first time someone’s spent money to have nationally renowned surveying firms find out what people think,” Hecox said. “Newspapers and politicians are often wrong, so we’re trying to get below those and ask the people who live here about their values.”
The poll has sparked national interest with its bipartisan, cross-cultural examination of actual public opinions. The results have highlighted the lack of communication between government and people from both sides. Many people are unaware of how their elected officials are voting, and politicians have often incorrectly assumed the desires of their constituents.
“Despite the fact that more than 39 million acres of public lands – including land in six national parks – are currently leased by oil and gas companies, only 34 percent of those interviewed for the 2013 survey knew with certainty that oil and gas drilling occurs on public lands!” Hecox said in an article for Mountain West Perspectives.
Another statistic that was surprising to many was that 91 percent of people agreed public lands are an essential part of their state’s economy. Most of the findings from the poll indicate that people are generally concerned with conservation across political parties and regional boundaries. In this way, the Rockies project has been able to provide data for regional organizations, politicians, and whoever else is interested.
“We want to create unbiased, visible data so the residents of the region can form their own opinions,” said program coordinator Brendan Boepple.
To expand the audience for these statistics and the student research, Boepple explained that one of the next steps of the project is to improve the website and make the information more accessible.
So far, one of the most effective ways the Rockies project has drawn in interest is though the new branch of expedition-based research.
CC alums Will Stauffer-Norris ’11, and Zak Podmore ’11, have pioneered this expedition aspect with their Source-to-Sea kayak trip on the Colorado River last year and their more recent excursion “Down the Colorado.” Videos and pictures from these expeditions have brought more awareness to the Rockies project.
“We’re working on the nexus between outdoor recreation and scientific research,” Boepple said. “Even the most conservative elk hunter is still an outdoor recreationalist; that’s a connection that really should be bridged and utilized more often.”
This connection will be explored further at this year’s conference, where representatives from Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation will lead the discussion on citizen science. The second day of the conference will be dedicated to the environmental and economic consequences of large sporting events, including the World Alpine Skiing Championships that will be hosted at Vail and Beaver Creek in 2015.
The State of the Rockies project continues to develop its model by adding more branches to its design. It is particularly unique to CC not only with the opportunity for undergraduate students to be published, but because of our location in the Rockies area and the neutral stance behind the research being done.
“There’s power in this. People read about it all over the nation and know about it more than people at Colorado College,” Hecox said.
This summer’s researchers will focus on large landscape conservation and new conservation techniques arising in today’s patchwork of land ownership. The project will remain a unique aspect of CC, and will continue to have great effects on the students involved and to provide unbiased research on regional environmental issues.