School with dreams as big as Old West

Friday, March 16, 2012 9:40 PM
Courtesy of Four Corners School
An architect's image of the planned campus at the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education shows the various structures and their functions.
Courtesy of Four Corners School
Janet Ross, Four Corners School executive director, is always at home outdoors on the Colorado Plateau.
Courtesy of the Four Corners School
The future home of the Four Corners School in Monticello, Utah, features a new sign on the highway indicating the location of the school’s projected campus.
Courtesy of Four Corners School
An architect’s projected image shows the Canyon Country Discovery Center’s buildings, shaded rest areas and planned parking.
Courtesy of Four Corners School
An architect’s rendering shows buildings and landscaping for the multimillion-dollar Canyon Country Discovery Center still in its fundraising phase.
Courtesy of Four Corners School
After working to improve the campground, a locally based crew of the Canyon Country Youth Corps poses at the entrance to the Bureau of Land Management’s Sand Island campground and boat launch near Bluff, Utah.

MONTICELLO, Utah — The West has always been full of dreamers and schemers, but rarely have true visionaries sought educational goals. Westerners sought lost gold and silver mines, large ranches lush with grass and fresh water, or untouched timber.

Other Westerners, to use Wallace Stegner's phrase, seek “a society to match its scenery.” One such Westerner with a 21st-century goal is Janet Ross, executive director of the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education, who has big plans for 48 acres north of Monticello, Utah.

In the 19th century on barren ground, even before statehood, dedicated teachers in Colorado Springs began The Colorado College. In 1911, Fort Lewis College began as an Indian boarding school, evolved into a public high school, a community college and finally a four-year college when it moved from the Old Fort onto the mesa above Durango.

Now Ross has her own 21st century vision for an education, conservation, service and adventure institution, embracing the vast Colorado Plateau, which is home to more national parks, national forests, national monuments, wilderness areas and tribal reservations than anywhere on Earth.

Ross doesn't plan to grant degrees. Instead, she wants to connect people with place. She wants shared knowledge of this dynamic landscape we call home. Since 1984, the Four Corners School and its associated programs, including Canyon Country Youth Corps, Southwest Ed-Ventures and the Bioregional Outdoor Education Project, have introduced thousands of visitors and locals to the history, habitats and ecosystems on the Colorado Plateau. Whether by rafting, hiking, backpacking, trail building or studying ancient cliff dwellings, the Four Corners School has broadened the knowledge of both tourists and residents.

Now Ross, whose parents Reid and Sari Ross live in Durango, feels it's time for a unique place-based learning center in Southeast Utah. Total projected cost for the Canyon Country Discovery Center, a public-private partnership between the Four Corners School and the city of Monticello, is $8.5 million. More than $3.2 million already has been raised.

Janet Ross believes in the mantra of Baba Dioum, a conservationist from Senegal, who said, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

The Discovery Center will be the new home of the Four Corners School, and supporters hope it will serve as a destination point for the 2 million visitors who travel across the plateau and through Monticello each year. It also will cater to local and regional schools and residents interested in sustainability, which is why the architecture and construction of the Discovery Center will showcase LEED-certified building materials and techniques.

“We're on the main highway, so everyone can see us,” Ross says. “People are going to drive in and visit our programs.”

She adds, “We want to be inviting to all cultures on the plateau,” so all activities and interpretation will include English, Spanish and Navajo.

Proponents have crafted a market feasibility study, a business plan and are seeking funds through the Economic Development Administration of the Department of Commerce. Goals include serving 35,000 people onsite, including school groups, and 97,000 through outreach programs that will feature, according to Ross, “a whole menu of activities tied to the core curriculum for people to participate in.”

Conference space will accommodate 150 visitors. Teacher training in the new facility will highlight bioregional education.

Sounds ambitious? Yes, but Ross has worked for the National Outdoor Leadership School, Outward Bound, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service as a backcountry ranger, wilderness specialist and recreation crew leader. A graduate of Prescott (Ariz.) College, she believes in place-based education and has a master's degree in experiential education. The Four Corners School has served participants from age 6 to 90, given 200 teacher scholarships and protected 28 archaeological sites on public lands.

The 19 regional and national awards for the school are impressive, including the 2004 Governor of Utah's Watershed Improvement Award and 2004 BLM's State of Utah Public Lands Volunteer of the Year award. In 2009, the school earned the Public Lands Service Award from the Corps Network, probably because of 60,600 hours of youth and adult service on public lands.

At the groundbreaking ceremonies last August, Utah author and photographer Stephen Trimble said, “Citizens of the Colorado Plateau spend a lot of time arguing about the highest and best use of this Bedrock West. ... We do well to take the long view. That is more or less the mission of this building. We have the chance to move beyond the paralysis of old antagonists. Newcomers value the same open space honored by generations of families tied to the land.”

Trimble concluded, “The people who will make their lifelong homes here and the visitors who are newly discovering the canyon country both will learn from this center's educators the value of service, the joy of adventure, the sweet sense of refuge that comes with belonging to a community and the gratifying responsibility to conserve the natural and cultural heritage of the Colorado Plateau.”

Dreams in dry places? Perhaps. But why not plan for a visitor center, yurt, hogans, a meditation area, conference/education center, a night sky observatory, trails, outdoor classroom and demonstration gardens — all celebrating the Colorado Plateau. What's there now? An impressive highway sign and 48 acres that will become the Canyon Country Discovery Center campus.

“I think it's a good idea. I got involved with it for its economic benefits, to help fill motel rooms and restaurants,” says Doug Allen, mayor of Monticello's 2,000 residents. “The funding is always a challenge, but we're working on it and making progress.”

Build it and they will come? Why not? They're already coming across the plateau as tourists, families and foreigners from France, Germany and Japan. Can we bridge the Old West of cattle ranching, mining and lumbering with the New West of outdoor recreation and retirees soaking up scenery? For some, the Next West will blend both old and new in a stable economy that uses, but not abuses, natural resources and preserves and protects cultural resources that can be destroyed but never replaced.

I hope to find some answers at the Canyon Country Discovery Center. Let's support the dreamers with their plans for the future. Nineteenth-century Navajo Chief Manuelito said that education was the key, the ladder to success. He was right.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at