Youth meets faith meets science meets indigenous knowledge: These unlikely forces joined forces in Wyoming recently to study the environment.

Tribes, Youth, Faith and Science Leaders Focus on Environment

Dustin Bleizeffer, Wyofile

In direct opposition to what Wyoming leaders often proclaim—that Wyoming can have full-scale development without sacrificing the state’s other vast natural resources—new studies find that Wyoming’s land, air, water, wildlife and people do suffer from environmental degradation.

People who spend time in Wyoming’s landscapes don’t need a study to tell them, either. They can see it: vistas of distant mountain ranges are shrouded in haze, snowfields recede faster than usual, and some wildlife populations are declining.

Potential solutions to preserve these natural resources that give people a sense of place, and that drive our local economies, often require complex efforts and—above all—cooperation among people with  a diverse set of needs and values.

Several years ago Mary Walker of the Wyoming Association of Churches noticed that too many people were not communicating with one another about their shared appreciation of the natural world and how they could work together to preserve it. So she helped launch the One People, One Earth initiative in 2009.

“So many people were not able to focus on solutions and foster respect for our diversity,” Walker said. “What unites us is far greater than what divides us.”

Walker moderated a panel of scientists, faith leaders, youth, and Native American leaders at the One People, One Earth discussion in Riverton on Friday.

“I’m interested in how humans have impacted our environment, and helping students and citizens understand the science of our environment, and the consequences” of environmental changes, said Indy Burke, director of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, and Wyoming Excellence chairwoman at the University of Wyoming.

Burke also serves on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board. She lamented that much of that work requires scientists to board airplanes and fly to Washington D.C. to discuss environmental matters. But the work of scientists is to help better inform the work of policymakers to have a broader beneficial environmental impact.

She said the poorest countries in the world are becoming more affluent and rapidly increasing their consumption of resources. Intense poverty and the ever-increasing population around the world, often go unnoticed by students who have not traveled internationally, said Burke. So it’s difficult to drive home the scale of environmental challenges, she said.

“There’s a lack of understanding about what science is,” Burke added. “A number of our citizens don’t understand what a greenhouse gas is, and don’t understand the role of uncertainty in science.”

To represent perspectives of youth and the Native American community Latia “Tia” Tendore and Talitha Trippel were invited to join the panel.

“Things have changed so much, we have wonderful modern things,” said Trippel, a sophomore at Central Wyoming College. “We don’t want to give them up. A lot of this does hurt the natural world, and that’s not acceptable because we only have one.”

Those who would like to see more cooperation on conservation efforts can’t expect people to radically change their lifestyle without a “fantastic reason,” she said.

“Let’s embrace our differences, because you can’t build a solution without all of those different (kinds of) expertise,” Trippel said.

Tendore, 19, works at the Joint Tribal Complex as an administrative assistant, and is a member of United National Indian Tribal Youth organization (UNITY). “We do have a lot of luxuries, but we forget to give back to Mother Earth. … We’re not taking Mother Earth into our thoughts, we’re so busy living for ourselves,” said Tendore.

Tendore, Trippel and another young woman who spoke at the event on Friday mentioned their concern that younger generations lack respect for both the environment and for older generations. While many among today’s younger generations may not be as connected to the environment as generations before them, University of Wyoming professor Jeffrey Lockwood said he sees something else among younger generations that concerns him more.

“They (younger generations) seem to have lost capacity to doubt authority, to ask hard questions, to bite the hand that feeds in terms of the energy industry,” he said. Respect is “oddly misplaced among many of the students I’ve engaged. They respect all the wrong things: money, affluence, authority, whoever is paying the bill.”

Lockwood, a renowned entomologist, is a professor of philosophy who says both faith and science drive his appreciation and concern for the natural world.

“Science is absolutely necessary to who I am (and who we are), but science is not enough,” Lockwood said. “For me it all comes together; out of science grew this enchantment with the world.” (Read Lockwood’s related essay, “Futility Refuted.”)

Among others who spoke from the viewpoint of Wyoming’s faith communities was Rev. Warren Murphy, an Episcopal clergyman from Cody who is former director of the Wyoming Association of Churches.

“I consider myself a protector of the environment, and an advocate of good science, and committed to understanding Native American culture and what it means to this state,” Murphy said. “I’m a hiker—spent 30 years hiking every trail, being out and in it to appreciate creation. … The definition of sin is being separated from environment, separated from the creator, separated from each other. Being dominant over the earth—I take issue with that notion.”

Gary Collins, tribal liaison to the governor’s office for the Northern Arapaho tribe, said Native Americans own some 56 million acres in the West, and there’s an awakening among tribes to demand more input about what happens in terms of energy and other forms of development that impact natural resources. Collins said he has worked on climate change matters for years, and is currently working with others to conduct a study to determine the potential extent of drought on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

“We are the last generation to change (matters related to human influence on climate). The next generation, if things don’t change, we will be digging out of a hole,” Collins said. “My incentive is to make it a better place for those children who aren’t even born yet.”

Rev. Murphy and others expressed concern about how Wyoming’s political and industrial leaders approach and talk about the environment.

“In Wyoming the obstacle is politicians and money,” Rev. Murphy said, adding that the legislature’s move to block Next Generation Science Standards from being discussed or implemented in Wyoming should concern all citizens.

“The whole notion that it might hurt our economy if we tell the truth—I really believe that’s where the heart of where the problem lies.”

Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. He has covered energy and natural resource issues in Wyoming for 15 years. You can reach him at (307) 267-3327 or email [email protected]. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer

Reprinted with permission from Wyofile.

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