Camp Life: Texas to Walla Walla

It's been a wild ride for Semester in the West's 2016 program. This fall we covered over 11,000 miles, traveling further north (Twisp, Washington), south (Big Bend National Park, Texas) and east (Pine Ridge, South Dakota) than any previous program. The last few months have flown by and now we find ourselves back where we started at the cozy lodges of the Johnston Wilderness Campus. As the Tech Manager, it gave me particular pleasure during Thanksgiving to meet so many of you who have been following along on our trip virtually. As a thank you and a personal sendoff, I hope you enjoy this final camp life series of 2016. Tune back in come 2018 for more photos, speakers and stories produced by a whole new crop of Whitman's brightest minds. 


Collin Smith
Technical Manager 2016

Better Know an Educator: Ray Bransfield


In the grand web of environmental conservation, Ray Bransfield has found his niche. Bransfield is a Senior Biologist for the Palms Springs Department of Fish and Wildlife, where he has served for the past 33 years. He works under a specific section of the Endangered Species Act to assess the environmental impacts of and put holding actions on prospective development projects in order to keep threatened species from sliding past the point of return. Bransfield’s primary focus is the desert tortoise. When he thinks about the tortoise, whose population in the Mojave Desert is struggling to survive due in large part to industrial developments and collisions with highway and off-highway vehicles, he reflects on the importance of preserving a world where the tortoises are still there for the next generation. For Bransfield, it is not just about the desert tortoise though, but also about maintaining the biodiversity of the Mojave Desert and keeping wild places everywhere.

Bransfield focuses on the positive things he can do for the tortoise, and aims to best use biology, the law, and cooperation with people from all sides to protect ecosystems and endangered species. He affirms that at times the legal system is an important aspect of achieving conservation goals, and also believes that education is a critical piece to this puzzle. If the public appreciates and cares for their desert ecosystems they will decrease activities that threaten habitat and demand that companies take responsibility for protecting the environment. 

By Abby Popenoe

Meet Our Speakers: Susan Sorrelis

Surrounded by natural springs spilling from the hillsides, Susan Sorrelis grew up in a very different Shoshone California than she returned to. As a fourth generation Shoshoen, home called after her beginning her career in Europe as an international relations writer and photographer. Ever since returning, it has been her dream to restore Shoshone’s wetland and desert landscapes back to the pristine ones she grew up in. Living close to the land throughout her childhood, riding horses before she could walk, she has become an adamant supporter of restoring ecosystems. Her soft voice weaves reason into words as she proudly explains that she has always been environmentally committed. She believes that when people destroy their environment they are also destroying their future. By restoring ecosystems in Shoshone she has helped return the endangered Death Valley Pupfish to populations in the thousands. Her success is rooted in ensuring that an entire ecosystem is created, one that is good for all creatures, including humans. On her own property Susan has enthusiastically protected and opened up this place as a conservation model centered in community. She tells us about architect Richard Neutra’s thought that, “When humankind becomes disconnected from nature they begin to lose their humanity.” Enthusiastic and hopeful that there may one day be an Amargosa River National Monument to come visit, she is driven by the successes of this journey. Rooted in place, she has united the community in her drive to help their home thrive.

Meet Our Speakers: Doug Davis

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is the largest concentrated solar facility in the world. Located in California’s Mojave Desert at the Nevada border, the solar plant helps meet California’s electricity needs and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 640,000 tons annually. While this transition to renewable energy sources is laudable, the context is more complicated: the site of the solar plant is prime habitat for the endangered desert tortoise and is part of the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds. Environmental manager Doug Davis of NRG Energy oversees the nation’s largest private-sector desert tortoise and bird protection programs to reduce the solar plant’s impact to the desert ecosystem.

Doug attributes his graying hair to the slew of unexpected issues that have increased the solar plant’s impact to local and endangered species.  Yet he is committed to maximizing the intactness of the ecosystem that now coexists with the solar plant. To do so, Doug’s team extends to federal agencies such as the BLM, USGS, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife; dozens of biologists working on longitudinal tortoise and bird survival studies; and conscientious solar plant employees. Though there is still much to do, Doug is dedicated to an intact desert ecosystem because he understands the value these species’ survival for the desert and the world: “There’s a reason I live in a rural small community—[so] that I can listen to the coyotes at night and see the stars. I don’t want that to go away.” 

By Elizabeth Greenfield


Meet Our Speakers: Tanya Henderson

In the town of Shoshone, California—population: 31—residents know conservation intimately. Shoshone is home to the Amargosa Conservancy, a small organization devoted to the conservation of the Amargosa River Basin and its biodiverse ecosystems. Spearheading this immense effort is Tanya Henderson, executive director of the Conservancy. After graduating from Whitman College in 2005, Henderson began to focus on conservation, eventually arriving in Shoshone and becoming the Amargosa Conservancy’s stewardship program manager. Over the summer, she transitioned into the role of executive director. Tanya Henderson and the Conservancy currently focus on the conservation of two endangered species in the area: the Amargosa vole and the desert pupfish. As their species names suggest, neither of these animals are charismatic megafauna, like wolves or bison. Henderson, however, still believes firmly in the need for conservation of all endangered species. She asks, “why not do what we can to save a species,” saying that such organisms are “life on the planet, and we should care about those things.”. However, one obstacle continues to make the Conservancy’s work difficult. Like many federal agencies focused on conservation, it’s difficult for the Amargosa Conservancy to find money to complete projects. Henderson recognizes this impediment to conservation, saying that “funding is crazy…it costs a lot do that kind of consistent work.”

By Fields Ford


Meet Our Speakers: Chris Schoneman

Near the southern terminus of California sits the Salton Sea, 375 square miles of water almost twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean. Sitting 230 feet below sea level, this basin has alternately filled and drained for thousands of years, enjoyed designated National Wildlife Preserve status since 1930, and been run under the steady hand of Chris Schoneman since 2004. The preserve encompasses 2,200 acres of critical migratory bird habitat, having hosted over 400 species on their journey through the Pacific Flyway. 1.3 million acre feet of water flow into the sea every year, most from salty agricultural runoff, and this poses a grave threat to the birds. Currently at 59 parts per thousand, the Sea’s salinity is steadily rising as extreme temperatures evaporate much of the incoming water and allow salt to build up. Past 60 ppt, experts predict several of the sea’s critical fish species will be unable to reproduce, and birds have already been found ashore literally starving to death.
    Chris oversees the development of 600 acres of partially desalinated water to serve as a buffer against further avian mortalities, and simultaneously works towards a system to mitigate the salinity of the Sea itself. He recognizes the necessity of cooperation with many different parties, saying, “we need to keep people involved, or we quickly become irrelevant,” but his first concern is for the wildlife. In the words of his longtime colleague, biologist Ray Bransfield, “birds have it rough. They need people like Chris.”

By Hunter Dunn

Meet Our Speakers: Jim André

“Ultimately for me, I am in love with a natural ecosystem.” Jim Andre is the Director of the Granite Mountains Research Center through the University of California Riverside Biology Department and has been passionate about the environment for his whole career as a botanist. He is fighting an uphill battle in the Mojave Desert of Southern California, one of the most biodiverse and intact ecosystems in the state. Working with graduate students, Andre has come to terms with how little we actually know about the floristic world around us. In the Mojave, there are over 2500 known plant species and hundreds more that are unidentified. For Andre, a botanist by trade, these unknowns are exciting but also a reality check. Andre predicts that in the coming decades of climate change, we won’t know the names of countless species that will go extinct in the Mojave. Decreased funding for research on public lands as well as the political encroachment into the scientific world are obstacles Andre has encountered in his career advocating for the conservation of landscape and biodiversity. Now a trusted source in the field of desert botany, Andre says “it’s incredible humbling” to be treated as an expert, recounting his 20s as a green biologist like they were yesterday. Despite the challenges that come with fighting for an under-appreciated ecosystem, Andre finds inspiration in his landscape, and will continue to advocate for conservation because he believes “in its own right, it is worthy of existence”.

By Amanda Champion

Meet Our Speakers: Gaby Gonzales-Olimón

“I was a Westie for a week,” explains Gaby Gonzalez-Olimón, Semester in the West’s Sonoran Institute host and guide while in Mexico.  Two years ago Gaby was interning as a wildlife biologist in Grand Canyon National Park when she met Semester in the West students and staff through a bison-surveying project on the North Rim.  Gaby grew up in Baja California and when the planned Spanish translator for the program’s Mexico section fell through, program director Phil Brick hired Gaby as the new translator.  Gaby drove from the Grand Canyon to Mexico to live and work with a group she had previously only known for a couple days.  Once in Mexico, Gaby interfaced with the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit organization working in the United States and Mexico to connect communities with their natural resources and preserve wildlife and habitat.  The Colorado River Delta Program of the Sonoran Institute was so impressed by Gaby they created a new position, Environmental Education Coordinator, just for her.   Gaby develops and implements environmental education programs and community workshops on restoration in the Colorado River Delta area.  She loves to take students and kids out into nature.  Many of these kids have lived their whole lives in urban areas and are initially terrified and brought to tears by the unfamiliarity of nature.  As an honorary Westie, Gaby’s advice to Semester in the West students is to “network and keep in touch with the people you meet.”  

By Hannah Trettenero

Meet Our Speakers: Iban Leal and Edgar Carrera


Las Arenitas is one of two wastewater treatment plants outside of Mexicali in Baja California that processes the city’s water to be reused for irrigation. Iban Leal is a chemist and the manager of the facility which is under the jurisdiction of CESPM, the state water commission. Water is pumped into the plant at a rate of 840 L per second and then travels through a series of ponds. This system of twelve shallow rectangular ponds help filter and clean the water through aeration, sunlight, chlorine and different types of bacteria. 
    From the ponds, the water flows into a 200-acre wetland. Edgar Carrera, a hydrologist and environmental engineer from the Sonoran Institute helps manage this area. The series of wetlands demonstrates a mutually beneficial partnership between the water treatment plant, the Sonoran Institute and the species that inhabit the marsh. The cattails that dominate the area filter out the chemicals left in the water and provide a home for over 150 species of waterfowl. Once the water has circulated through the wetland for several weeks, thirty percent is diverted towards the Río Hardy and the rest is pumped back into the Mexicali Valley for irrigation. Las Arenita’s wetland is also used for educational purposes. School groups from Mexicali come here to walk an interpretive trail built in partnership with the Sonoran Institute and learn about the project’s success.


Meet Our Speakers: Michelle Hernandez and Fernando Contreras

In Mexicali, a few blocks from the U.S. border, Michelle Hernández and Fernando Contreras speak in front of a municipal drain recently cleared of trash with a clear sense of purpose. Both recent graduates of the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, Michelle and Fernando are now key players in the Sonoran Institute’s first urban restoration project in Mexicali. This project aims to remove vast amounts of trash from Mexicali’s drains, getting the community involved to discourage further littering and revitalizing these illegal dump sites with trees, benches, and paths. 

As Project Coordinator, Michelle writes plans and proposals for funding, helps form community volunteer groups to maintain restoration sites and collaborates with government agencies. However, the hardest part of her job, she says, is environmental education: changing some Mexicali residents’ mindsets on waste disposal is a great challenge. 

The Sonoran Institute has received funding to restore six of Mexicali’s many trash-clogged drains, and these sites were chosen with the mapping expertise of Fernando, the Institute’s GIS (Global Information Systems) Coordinator. Fernando uses ArcGIS to construct models of potential restoration sites, analyzing topography, groundwater depth, and other features to help select the optimum locations for restoration. In Mexicali, the drains that Fernando has chosen flow to California’s Salton Sea and have communities and schools nearby. In this way, Fernando and Michelle’s work benefits not only the residents of Mexicali, but thousands of U.S. citizens as well.

“Everyday we’re preparing and learning to do things better,” Fernando explains from a new litter-free path at the Dren (Drain) Internacional. “I like the work because I can really see the product of my efforts.”

By Thomas Meinzen

Meet Our Speakers: Antonia Torres

The Cucapa people have lived in the Colorado Delta and along the Sierra Cucapa mountains of Mexico for 3000 years teaches Antonia Torres, cultural educator at Don Juan Garcia Community Museum. Of her Cucapa people she says, “We are called the people from the river, we were born and we came out of the Colorado River.” The Colorado River that once flowed through their valley at the base of the Sierra Cucapa in the Colorado Delta is now dry, putting their livelihoods and culture at stake. Don Juan Garcia community center is the first community museum in the whole state with the goal to educate visitors on the tribe and their history, culture, and language. Antonia hopes to attract individuals who are motivated to become involved in their culture and promote economic growth. Antonia is actively working to preserve her culture through informative, beautiful exhibits at the Don Juan Garcia Community Museum while also teaching children in her community. As the cultural educator of the Cucapa, Antonia teaches Cucapa youth to be proud of who they are, what they have, and to spread the knowledge they have of their own culture. 

By Sophie Poukish

Meet Our Speakers: Francisco Zamora

Francisco Zamora is mobilizing hope. As Director of the Sonoran Institute’s Colorado River Delta Legacy program and with around 20 years of experience working in the Mexico-United States border region, Zamora has seen massive ecological and social progress. His job requires collaboration with local leaders, businesses and government agencies to achieve one main goal: returning the Colorado River to the Gulf of California. Where once the river provided a green path of biodiversity and irrigation water through one of the hottest regions of Mexico, it has today shriveled to salty mud pits from over-allocation. 
It would seem hard to find hope in this expansive landscape of dust, but Zamora celebrates in the achievements that a community-grown, cooperative approach has yielded. He compares the Sonoran Institute’s restoration work to planting a seed, one that will empower local employees in growing the spirit of the project with their own ideas. Zamora has an equally optimistic metaphor for his relationship with big governments and agencies. Where he once had to “push the truck,” to bring attention to the Delta’s importance, he now sees such community enthusiasm that he is easily “pulling” a bandwagon of support. Facing a tumultuous political climate in the wake of the recent U.S. election, Franciso models an inspiring outlook. He is motivated in his work by “the joy of knowing that I’m doing a good thing.” 

By Signe Lindquist

Meet Our Speakers: Yuliana Dimas

In 2014, an international effort secured the release of a pulse of water into the parched Colorado River delta. As ecologists delighted in the success of returning water to the natural channel of the Colorado River, communities in the Mexicali Valley celebrated as well. Yuliana Dimas, a social worker for one of Mexico’s leading environmental organizations, ProNatura Noroeste, recognizes the cultural significance of restoring the flow of the Colorado River through its natural delta. While ecologists continue to monitor the health of the ecosystem, Yulie studies the surrounding communities’ relationship with the pulse flow, which she says has largely been positive. Historically, communities in the Mexicali valley were very connected with the river and Yulie believes that the pulse flow is restoring those connections. When the water came, people gathered alongside the river banks to celebrate the long awaited sight of water flowing toward the sea. Yulie explains that children are learning about the river ecosystem and that families are volunteering with restoration projects which has “made the place happy, very happy.” The work of community advocates like Yulie means that returning water to the Colorado delta has strengthened the community as well as the ecosystem, reminding people of the joy of water.

By Sarah Dunn

Meet Our Speakers: Alejandra Calvo-Fonesca


“You’re going to have to swim!” These were the words of Alejandra “Alex” Calvo-Fonesca when our boat ran out of gas in Ciénega de Santa Clara, a vast marsh of recycled irrigation water in Sonora, México. Her mischievous smile told us she was joking, and she quickly produced a paddle with which to rescue us. Wildlife Survey Coordinator for ProNatura, Alex brims with enthusiasm for her job. “It’s like school,” she says. “I’m always learning. Sometimes I have a theory, and my coworkers know what’s going on in the place. We correlate the two and learn. That’s what I love.” When Alex majored in aquaculture at Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara, she planned to design ornamental aquaria. Instead, she began working at a shrimp farm and surveying birds for ProNatura, a nonprofit that has been collaborating with governments and local communities to restore the Colorado River Delta since 1990.  Now in her ninth year, Alex has risen from fieldwork to the office. “I knew nothing about biology when I started, but they provided a workshop,” Alex explains. She conducted vegetation and wildlife surveys, learning to identify marsh birds such as sora, least bittern, and the endangered Yuma clapper-rail by ear. Alex’s curiosity has earned her a vast and growing base of knowledge. She can point out native cattails and introduced cane, bird species in English and Spanish, and even the way out of a mazelike marsh when your boat runs out of gas.

By Nina Finley

Meet Our Speakers: Juan Riosmoreno

Juan Riosmoreno has spent the past 30 years working in water accounting on one of the most contested waterways in the world. Riosmoreno is an engineer and the acting Chief of Operations at Morelos Dam in Algodones, Mexico at the US-Mexico Border. His job entails monitoring the water’s salinity and flow when it reaches Mexico so that the Dam can release the water appropriately for use in Mexico. Morelos Dam was built in the 1950s to receive water from reservoirs higher up the Colorado River, such as Lake Mead. Riosmoreno and the Morelos Dam have witnessed many important events in the history of the Colorado’s flow into Mexico. One such event was 2014’s pulse flow. The pulse flow was part of Minute 319, a small piece of  a binational agreement that allowed a release of water into Mexico from the United States for the revitalization of the environment, as well as a smaller base flow delivered later in the year to sustain the channel’s flow over a longer time. The Morelos Dam was the release point for much of the water two years ago and Riosmoreno hopes for another release in the future, especially after Minute 319 expires next year. More water releases would help communities and conservation interests in the border regions of Mexico and in the Sonoran Desert where Riosmoreno works. Though bound by directives for opening the dam gates, Riosmoreno says that if he could, he would open the gates for the farmers, the cities and the environment. 

By Maggie Baker

Camp Life: Utah to Texas

Meet Our Speakers: Bonnie McKinney

Standing in the shade of the porch in a pair of beautifully worn cowboy boots, Bonnie McKinney introduces herself quickly. She runs though the professional paths she has followed until she arrived here, at the Adams Ranch in Southern Texas, as the Wildlife Coordinator.  McKinney’s work takes place on a large piece of land owned by The El Carmen Land and Conservation Company.  This private conservation area sits strategically between the Texas Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, Big Bend National Park and a CEMEX conservation project in the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains of Mexico. In this important transnational wildlife corridor, it is McKinney’s job to document animals, protect habitats and facilitate projects done on this land. Bonnie McKinney was the right woman to hire for this job. She had worked on CEMEX’s conservation project in Mexico for the 14 years prior and before that was employed by Texas Parks and Wildlife.  Work in the outdoors is what has come most naturally to McKinney who grew up hunting and fishing in Virginia. She says of herself, “I was outside my whole life. I was in the creek catching minnows and my mom was always trying to get me inside the house to learn to cook, and that never happened.” McKinney has made a career out of what she loves most and is helping to protect the deeply unique environment of these desert borderlands in doing so. 

By Grace Butler

Meet Our Speakers: Billy Pat McKinney


Billy Pat McKinney grew up in both the United States and Mexico, flitting across a border marked only by the Rio Grande. McKinney told us that—as a boy—nature lovers were the butt of his jokes. Clearly people change because in 1969, hoping “to make a quick buck” he found a job as a field biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Reminiscing, he told the westies it’s the things you stumble upon that make you happiest. McKinney made live captures to study animals and quickly mastered his job. He’s a “do it yourself” guy, living to defy the maxim, “conservation without money is just conversation.” He currently works for CEMEX, a global cement company operating in over 50 countries. The company owns the Adams Ranch, a large parcel of land in the Big Bend area and dedicates it to conservation with the goal of corporate responsibility. Cemex employs a team, under the direction of McKinney, to oversee the conservation area. Among their responsibilities are re-wilding and reviving wildlife populations. They strategically place supplemental feed for quail and water guzzlers (which harvest and store rainwater) for mule deer, big horn sheep, and birds. To further aid wildlife, McKinney suggests giving certain animals game status. Though it sounds counterintuitive, this gives species protection until their population bolsters to a viable size. He enjoys his vocation: protecting wildlife. “I fell in love with this work, and the romance continues.”

By Griffin Cronk


Meet Our Speakers: Josiah Austin

“We have to manage conservation,” Josiah Austin tells the westies over a bowl of cereal. His 30,000-acre Adams Ranch in Big Bend, Texas is surrounded on three sides by conservation areas–National Park on one side, Wildlife Management on another, and a privately-held international corporate conservation area to the southeast, straddling the US-Mexico border. Austin began buying up Texas ranch properties in 1982 with the intention of restoring landscape and habitat. “When we first started doing watershed restoration, we didn’t really know what we were doing, but we learned quickly.” He and his wife moved over a thousand miles from their home in Manhattan to a double-wide on El Coronado Ranch in Texas. “I don’t think my wife had any clue what a double-wide even was,” Austin smiled. Josiah is tall and thin, and even when he’s wearing Crocs he appears authoritative. He dropped out of high school, talked his way into college, and graduated from the University of Denver with a degree in finance. After a career in the stock market, he went west to pursue his passion for open spaces. “I guess my love for open space started on my family’s farm in Maryland,” he explained, “on New Hampshire Avenue.” At the Adams Ranch Headquarters in Big Bend, it seems Austin’s got all the open space he could ever want. 

Floating Down the Border

Going where no Semester in the West has gone before, the 2016 Westies took a trip down the Río Grande through Big Bend National Park. As we forded whitewater and rockslides, the boundary between Mexico and the USA dissolved into one incredible river canyon, the Santa Elena. We spent two nights on the river, sleeping out under the dark West Texas skies. Here are a few photos from the excursion for you to enjoy!