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Fort Lewis College charts course for next generation of river stewards

New programs tackle education, conservation through experiential learning
Mike Ward, a river guide with Fort Lewis on the Water, leads students on a trip down the San Juan River. FLOW and Fort Lewis College’s new River Studies and Leadership Certificate are designed to get students on the river and prepare the next generation of river stewards and river managers. (Courtesy of Kyriakina Valavanis)

Amid climate change and long-term drought, water is an increasingly precious resource, not only for the environment, but for rural and recreation-based economies.

Two new programs at Fort Lewis College plan to tackle the challenges rivers face by training the next generation of decision-makers and stewards.

The River Studies and Leadership Certificate and the Fort Lewis on the Water program use coursework and experiential learning to prepare students for careers as river professionals. In doing so, the programs are filling a pressing need among river management organizations and helping students while readying a new cohort of leaders to navigate the uncertain future of water in the West.

“We need to be building this next generation that is going to step into some of those leadership roles and that’s part of the goal of this certificate,” said Gigi Richard, a professor of geosciences and the director of the Four Corners Water Center.

The River Studies and Leadership Certificate is in its first year, and the program is a collaborative effort between FLC and the River Management Society, a professional organization for river managers.

The program trains students for careers in river management by combining coursework with professional experiences. Its goal is both to prepare students for their futures while also addressing a growing need among public land agencies and river nonprofits.

Unlike other FLC credentials, students receive the certificate directly from the River Management Society instead of the college.

“We developed this program a few years back and it’s designed to help prepare the next generation of river managers,” said Bekah Price, communication coordinator for the River Management Society. “You have a lot of students that might be raft guiding, studying environmental science (or who) have an interest in the outdoors and rivers, but they’re not necessarily sure what career options are out there. This bridges that gap.

“It’s really designed to be a win-win for students who care about the environment and river management and then also those agencies who are looking to bring in those students upon graduation,” Price said.

Richard, the adviser for the certificate, worked with the River Management Society to outline a curriculum and bring the program to FLC after having previously brought the certificate to Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.

Students look at historic riverside dwellings during a Fort Lewis on the Water trip. Programs such as geology and environmental science, but also psychology and others, can integrate overnight float trips on the San Juan and Rio Chama rivers into their coursework. Bruce Saxman, an adventure education professor at Fort Lewis College, and guides with the FLOW program lead the river trips. (Courtesy of Bruce Saxman)

Eleven schools across the country have adopted the certificate so far, as schools increasingly recognize the importance of training students who will guide the future of river systems in the U.S.

Students at FLC take a set of core courses, including classes about computer mapping, river ecology and water politics. They can then choose from three different emphasis areas in river science, river-based policy and management, and river-based recreation, education and tourism for additional coursework.

They must also meet a professional requirement, which includes an internship, presenting a project at the annual River Management Society symposium or publishing an article in the River Management Society’s journal.

The key to the program is the experiential learning that students must complete. A core requirement of the certificate is a swift course to gets students out on the river.

That’s where the Fort Lewis on the Water program comes in.

“Our launching of this certificate program is timely because it goes hand-in-hand with our new Fort Lewis on the Water (FLOW) program,” Richard said. “The River Studies and Leadership Certificate requires that students actually spend some time on the river and the FLOW program creates the opportunity for the students to take courses that involve actual time on the river.”

FLC established FLOW this past year as a part of the college’s push for greater access to experiential learning. The program offers guided river trips led by students and adventure education professor Bruce Saxman to the college community.

“Our goal is to provide outdoor education experiences on some of our local rivers, expanding Fort Lewis College’s classroom beyond the mesa and into our wider region where we have these amazing desert riverways,” Saxman said.

Programs such as geology and environmental science, but also psychology and others, can integrate overnight float trips on the San Juan and Rio Chama rivers into their coursework. Saxman and the guides from the FLOW program also work with student groups to provide custom river trips.

Students paddle during a Fort Lewis on the Water river-rafting trip in 2021. FLOW and Fort Lewis College’s River Studies and Leadership Certificate place an emphasis on experiential learning to give students the experiences they need for their careers and to cultivate awareness of river systems and the threats they face in the Southwest. (Courtesy of Bruce Saxman)

FLOW offers students the river experiences that are so critical River Studies and Leadership Certificate, allowing them to experiment with career paths but also providing training.

“Experiential learning is important for any career. I think most of us learn best by doing,” Richard said.

“You see a trend now, especially at schools like Fort Lewis, where the coursework is getting out of the classroom and getting into the environment,” Price said. “(Students) are graduating with real life experience that is hopefully going to mirror what they do in the field.”

For student guides considering careers in river recreation or river management, FLOW can be priceless.

“FLOW is such an awesome opportunity for students to be able to work in an industry that they’re interested in,” said Gwen Stoddard, a FLOW guide and an adventure education and Spanish double major at FLC. “It’s fun while also gaining interpersonal, communication and problem-solving skills as well.”

The FLOW program has allowed Kyriakina Valavanis, a senior adventure education student and FLOW guide who plans to spend the upcoming rafting season as a trip leader, to practice many of the skills she will now apply.

“It’s really interesting going through this program and now being given the opportunity to implement some of the things that I’ve learned,” she said. “The basis of experiential education is having real world situations and problems to deal with and solve.”

Educators like Saxman can tell the difference this experiential learning makes for students.

Lauren Toho Haupt, a river guide with Fort Lewis on the Water, uses a GoPro while leading students on a trip down the San Juan River. The FLOW program has 18 rafting guides, including 14 full-time students at Fort Lewis College. Last June to October, FLOW led 16 trips for more than 200 FLC community members, and this year the program will lead more, said Bruce Saxman, an adventure education professor at FLC and coordinator for the FLOW program. (Courtesy of Kyriakina Valavanis)

“It’s one thing to get lectured, but to actually experience it leaves a much more lasting impression for most of our students,” Saxman said. “To understand how the river ecosystem has changed through the years, it’s a lot more powerful when you see it in person versus on a slideshow.”

The development of FLC’s new river programs comes at a time when rivers in the West face an increasingly uncertain future. Climate change, population growth and shifting use threaten to undermine these crucial natural and economic resources.

By getting students on the river, the River Studies and Leadership Certificate and the FLOW program prepare the next generation of river stewards, who will ultimately guide river management in the decades ahead.

“The water issues that we’re having in the Southwest are issues that everyone’s going to have to deal with, not just river runners,” Saxman said. “… We’re going to need creative solutions, we’re going need people who are advocates for water conservation and protecting these riverways.”

By reaching students across FLC and beyond the typical fields of environmental science or adventure education, FLOW aims to create river stewards everywhere.

“That awareness shouldn’t just be river guides and ecologists, (but) whoever’s running the wastewater treatment plant along the San Juan River or folks who graduate from Fort Lewis who ended up becoming leaders in their tribal communities,” Saxman said. “You want these ideas percolating through the communities around the rivers that we live near.”

Valavanis can see how much of a difference these river trips make for students who haven’t had the experience before.

“When you’ve built that relationship with the river, you want to take care of it,” she said. “You can see how things have gotten worse and you can actually visualize what needs to get better. You care more about it.”

The FLOW program has 18 rafting guides, including 14 full-time FLC students. Last June to October, FLOW led 16 trips for more than 200 FLC community members, Saxman said.

Mike Ward, left, Natalie Michel, center, and Jesse Jones prepare food during a Fort Lewis on the Water rafting trip. For student guides considering careers in river management or river recreation, FLOW allows them to work in the industry and offers real world experiences to prepare them for their careers. (Courtesy of Bruce Saxman)

The River Studies and Leadership Certificate has two students who have said they plan to pursue the program, Richard said, and other students like Stoddard are considering the new certification.

Both Saxman and Richard hope their programs will continue to grow and diversify.

In 2022, from March until the end of August, FLOW will guide 19 trips serving more than 300 FLC community members, Saxman said

Ideally, five to 10 students would pursue the River Studies and Leadership Certificate each year, Richard said.

For Valavanis, the FLOW program and the experiential learning it provides are already making a difference in her collegiate career.

“(The education) fills you. You feel fulfilled,” she said.

The River Studies and Leadership Certificate and FLOW serve as a reminder of the importance of rivers for students, faculty and community members beyond FLC.

“Our waterways are our life,” Stoddard said.

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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