March 17, 2023 | NEWS | By Konoha Tomono-Duval

Cyndy Hines is the Project Specialist for the State of the Rockies, which works to “address socio-environmental challenges in the Rocky Mountain West through collaborative student-faculty research, education, and stakeholder engagement.” You may have seen their posters around campus. She is a former U.S. Geological Survey researcher and has studied the migration of juniper trees due to climate change. After a while spent searching for her office, we met to discuss the State of the Rockies and her history among those mountains. 

Could you talk about some current or recent State of the Rockies Projects?

We have a lot of projects this summer, two of which are continuations from a couple we did last year, which were part of the Dark Skies research project. One project took place in Baca and [the student] wanted to use what we know about Dark Skies initiatives. And it just so happened that the Baca Center in Crestone was in violation of a lot of the guidelines that the Dark Skies community had come up with. This student decided that instead of doing a typical research project, he would try to take a practical approach. And so, he changed the lighting down there so that it’s now remotely controlled and is on a timer. So now it is in compliance with the Crestone community and the conflict between Baca and the community will hopefully dampen down. That was pretty popular among students and also [relates to] a question that we added to the State of the Rockies poll. This is a poll that we’ve been producing for the last 13 years. Results come out every year from people all across the country and most particularly in the eight states that the Rocky Mountains intersect. It’s about how people feel about some of the more pressing environmental ‘Rattlesnakes’ of the West, that we have to deal with in terms of climate change and growth. From that body of data, which is funded by the Hewlett Foundation, we loosely base a lot of the projects that we run.

What drew you out to Colorado?

I moved here when I was in seventh grade, and went to middle school and high school here and left. Mid-career and family, I wanted to move back closer to my family. And my husband’s family is from the Midwest. We were trying to find our way back to Colorado. It seems like some homing pigeon device activated. Though I love living in Oregon, Oregon was difficult. The rain was tough for me coming from a place like Colorado. But I love Oregon. Every time I go back, I spend a week in Brookings, OR. Last Christmas, I was saying “I want to go back!” So I was torn. I loved Oregon. That is where my research and my heart is. But I also love Colorado.

How did it affect you, moving at that age? 

My dad was a military officer, and we moved several times in my childhood. And yes, being uprooted and moving, especially in the middle of a school year, is very difficult. But I think that it’s just the way it is, and you just adapt. The movie “Stand By Me,” that’s totally what it’s like. Feeling like that’s some part of my identity; One day you’re going to say “Gee, I miss all of the pollen.” and you might move back.

Do you feel like Colorado is, in a sense, home? 

I think Colorado is home because I have extended family around. But more than that, it’s the landscape. If I go to Utah or New Mexico or the Gobi Desert, there’s that familiarity of the landscape. The Gobi is far away, but it looks just like this. And that’s exciting. My undergraduate work was in Physical Geography. So when I travel, I see similarities between vegetation and landscape type. I feel at home in the Intermountain West. 

Do you think climates shape people’s character?

It’s tough to generalize, but I think so. When you first asked the question, the first thing that popped into my brain was my three children. They were all born and, for the most part, lived quite a bit of their lives in the Portland area. I have a 20-year-old son, who to this day, when he thinks of forests, he thinks of temperate Northwest forests. When we hike in Colorado or Utah, he says “This is so ugly and dry.” I think that does make an impression on you. When I was a kid, we grew up in the Midwest and so there were tornadoes and torrential rain. But I really connected to Colorado. Because when you’re 12, you have a certain amount of freedom that you didn’t have when you were little. So you get to explore and get into trouble, and that’s what we did. Back then, Colorado Springs had like 100,000 people. So everywhere around was just open space and we would just ride out. It was just like early mountain biking, except you’d have the banana seat. And then we’d [do] all kinds of things out in the rocks. 

When you think of the Rocky Mountains, is there anything specific that comes to mind? 

The smell of the coniferous forest, the sap. There’s nothing like it. You have that affiliation with certain smells or sounds. And for me, the smell of the sap is really “Boom.” The other part is, I did a lot of river restoration work and the other thing I think about is the cottonwoods. In the spring, I get that sickly smell of the budding cottonwood. And then the juniper and the ponderosa pine, those super astringent smells.  

I have almost the opposite, coming from Oregon, with Doug[las] Fir forests or Cedar. 

Oh yes. A lot of the time I spent in temperate forests, it’s such a different smell. An organic smell, of the decomposing and the life. And that also has a deep, rich memory that it triggers. There’s a lot more to be said there.  Moving from Colorado to Oregon, what was that shift like? Overwhelming, etc? That is, I think, a matter of perspective. When I go to a desert environment, I see life. But it depends what you’re measuring. In terms of productivity, the Pacific Northwest forests blow everything away. But one of things that’s so extraordinary about living in the West, and I’m not just talking about the Rocky Mountain West, but also the Cascades and the Sierra Nevadas. But one of the things about the West is the amazing variability in physical geography. So I guess that I appreciate those different ecosystems for what they are. Because even though it looks like you go to the Great Sand Dunes and it looks desolate, if you dig a little underneath the surface, there’s all kinds of life.  

Are there any other places you remember where you were surprised to find life?

As a child growing up in Colorado, I don’t know if we spent a lot of time thinking about the natural world as I do today. As a kid, it was just sort of a fascination and wonder. “Wow, how did this get here? Why is all this sand here? It’s weird.” And I think that curiosity of really trying to understand why things are the way they are, that is really what propelled me to do the work that I did. And I can’t say that it’s something that I can really pinpoint as a kid.  

I know a lot of CC students are coming from outside the state and are suddenly getting thrown into this outdoorsy culture. Do you have any recommendations for places to visit?

Where I tend to recreate are places that are a little more difficult to get to, a little more remote. And this is because of the level of activity. Some of the places that I once loved are overrun with people. When [State of the Rockies] talked to some Native Americans about what they valued and where they recreate, they would say “We don’t go there anymore, because of that.” It’s different as a person who’s been on the planet as long as I have, and I’ve seen a lot of change. And I’ve seen how the recreation industry has been commandeered by rec industry equipment. This mindset of “You can’t hike the mountain? Just get an electric bike.” And suddenly Grandpa’s at the top of Pikes Peak. There are some serious consequences to making the outdoors accessible in the way that we’ve made it accessible. I think the idea of “Go buy it at REI and now you’re a mountaineer” can be very dangerous.  

As in, a mindset of “The way you accomplish a task is by having the right tools, not necessarily having tried to do it before?”

Exactly. I can’t tell you how many places I’ve been camping in my camp gear. I’ll get a new bag 20 years later. But a lot of the gear that I’ve had, I’ve had for a long time. It’s good gear, and I use it because I’m cheap and it’s expensive. But it’s shocking the places I’ve been where people pull up with their $900 tent. What is the point? What are we doing? Is it entertainment, or is it trying to connect? People do what they do, whatever their reasons are. So, I often don’t tell people where the cool spots are. But there are so many amazing places and the best way to find them is just to bumble around and figure out. Almost anywhere you go is breathtaking and has its own natural history and purpose and function.  

Is that a feeling that the outdoors are encapsulated or separate from the rest of your life? 

I think that sort of happened a couple hundred years ago. There was a split between philosophy and the sciences. And one of the things people did to better understand the natural world was that they stripped man away from it. So, man became distinct from the natural processes, and I think that might have been the beginning of a real disconnect, as humans are to our environment. As life has become more convenient, we’ve become more and more disconnected from our evolutionary history. Which, I believe, is one of the biggest drivers for the kinds of climate issues that we’re seeing today, this idea that we’ve got to make life more convenient. And in doing so, we’ve created a huge mess.  

Do you think that’s led to humans seeing themselves as increasingly different from other animals? 

This is my opinion but definitely. I had a conversation with someone the other day along the lines of ‘Isn’t it interesting how humans decided we had to make life meaningful?’ [..] I’ve had an idea for a book that I’ve been thinking about for a number of years, called “Because We Can.” And it’d be a book of all of the dumb things we’re done in the name of engineering. For example, straightening out major rivers. Which simplifies the riparian landscape and the ramifications of disconnecting that vegetation from their natural habitat.

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