Program combines research and action
By Rebecca Spiess
A new Methow-based Community Learning Program has just concluded its pilot summer initiative. Nine Western Washington University undergraduate fellows lived and worked in the Methow Valley while researching and implementing various sustainability initiatives.
Community organizations that hosted students included the Methow Valley Citizens Council, the Shafer Historical Museum and the Cascades Carnivore Project. Interns explored issues such as climate action inequity, studied local carbon offset programs, and planned an eco-share housing facility for future fellows.
The COVID-19 pandemic did shrink the program to about half its original size, but with added precautions, some initiatives were able to continue.
“Human health, economic vitality, social equity and justice — all these layers intersect in sustainability work,” Joshua Porter, the WWU adjunct professor spearheading the program, explained. “I love programs that provide real-world student learning and at the same time advance really needed projects.”
The fellows’ research covered many topics under the “sustainability” umbrella. Those working with the Cascades Carnivore Project hiked hundreds of miles in the Pasayten and Lake Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness areas, and in North Cascades National Park. Their aim was to collect hundreds of scat samples for DNA analysis to study the diets of animals like lynx and wolverines.
Others focused on climate. Maggie Coon, chair of the Methow Valley Citizens Council, said the fellowship brought undergraduates to the valley at a critical point: Her organization’s Climate Action Plan was introduced publicly last November.
“The timing could not have been more perfect,” Coon said. “It’s a huge priority for Methow Valley Citizens Council to be able to help youth to engage in this project. They are the ones that have the most at stake.”
The idea behind the Community Learning Program came to Porter around eight years ago, before he lived in the Methow Valley. His first experiences in the Methow included working as a caretaker on a farm up Twisp River.
It’s an experience he hoped to share with students — who, in turn, would introduce their own ideas and research into the community through a residential program.
One of the Community Learning Program’s central values is equality and accessibility. Porter wanted the program to be open to “all students that want to participate, not just the students who can afford to do unpaid internships or not work for a summer.”
To that end, all nine fellows were paid for their work and provided with housing across the valley. Due to the local housing shortage, the program utilized guesthouses and shared spaces, like the TwispWorks campus, to help meet student housing needs.
A student-led eco-share housing project also aimed to solve this issue long-term.
Porter has big dreams for next year’s fellowship, which will run for eight months beginning in April. He hopes to expand to 12-15 students. Five positions are already covered by the Sustainability, Equity, and Justice fund at WWU.
The program is now seeking community organizations to act as student hosts.
Porter also wants to ensure host organizations lacking the funds for an intern have chances to garner other funding. “I don’t want that to be a barrier to organizations,” he said. “I’ll do groundwork with them to find other funding sources.”
Hannah Nienaber, an environmental and sustainability studies student entering her senior year at WWU, completed the fellowship this summer. As part of her internship, she researched the abandoned community of Rockview near the Weeman bridge and Big Valley Ranch Road between Winthrop and Mazama.
The community was founded during early pioneer settlement in the valley and its abandonment remains a mystery that Nienaber aimed to uncover. She visited the site for research, comparing historic photographs with the dilapidated buildings and old sawmills that remain today.
“It was such a wonderful experience to be immersed in a community like the Methow Valley,” Nienaber said of her time in the program. “I feel so thankful to have been part of the first year.”