It’s the last week of July and one-hundred meters from the U.S.-Mexico border, three of the Great Basin Institute’s staff has gathered in the sweltering early morning hours at a McDonalds in the dusty border town of Nogales, Arizona. They are not here for breakfast burritos or hash browns, nor a general pit-stop on the way to the next town. This fast food landmark is the destination of a two day road trip from the Institute’s headquarters, in Reno, with one purpose: to greet sixteen biology students from the Universidad de Guadalajara, of Mexico, and return them to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where they will be enveloped in ecological restoration projects and field classes, intensive English classes, and the Great Basin Institute family. These sixteen biology students have made their way to Nogales to set out on a fourteen week internship fully sponsored by the Institute’s International Conservation Volunteer Exchange (ICVE).
ICVE-Mexico, as the course has been dubbed, is the product of GBI’s long-standing leadership in restoration efforts and education on Mexico’s central pacific coast. Great Basin Institute founder and Executive Director Jerry Keir describes his motive behind the program: “In 2001, on behalf of the Institute, I developed an international field course located on the central pacific coast of Mexico. With accredited support from the University of Nevada, Reno, this course explored issues and problems related to Mexico’s coastal environment and natural resources.”
From 2001-2004, GBI’s field courses in Mexico engaged over 70 students across disciplines in furthering their understanding of international conservation theory and practice. Students studied at various conservation sites in partnership with the Universidad de Guadalajara, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, as well as regional conservation nonprofits and local school districts. Over 180 international students and volunteers have since joined GBI and its network of faculty researchers from the University of Nevada, and those from partnering institutions, notably the University of South Florida, California State Channel Islands, and Chico State University.
In GBI’s long-term ambitions for this program, Keir envisioned a true exchange of ideas, techniques, and culture between the ecological restoration courses in Mexico and the on-the-ground conservation efforts of the Nevada Conservation Corps, GBI’s largest, long standing program. Keir continues: “Based on our success with universities in Mexico, the Institute founded the International Conservation Volunteer Exchange, which has been in operation since 2004. The impetus of the ICVE program was predicated upon the need for, and desire of, expanding global ecological literacy through service and education using environmental service as a vessel.”
Now it’s 2009 and, in the July heat of Nogales’ overcrowded McDonald’s parking lot, excitement and anxiety mounts. All of the long-awaited Guadalajara students have been accounted for, and, after a captivating session of affable greetings, the sixteen ICVE interns begin to load their backpacks, sleeping bags and suitcases into the bed of a large, white, GBI truck with a camper shell, careful to not forget their iPod’s before finding a seat for the long journey ahead. It’s finally here; the long envisioned ICVE-Mexico program has come to fruition.
After a two day journey north, the conglomerate of young biologists finally arrives to Reno, where they will make their home in a large, non-descript brick house across from the University of Nevada campus. As part of their training and education, and before any field work can commence, the interns are required to go through a rigorous two-day, bi-lingual, orientation where they are introduced to various projects, technique and theory, and project safety. Once the interns complete their orientation, it is time for them to be immersed into the rest of the ICVE and Nevada Conservation Corps, 250 members strong during the summer of 2009.
On the first Monday of August, at dawn, the ICVE-Mexico interns make their way to the University of Nevada-Reno’s northern parking lot to meet with the rest of the Corps for the first time. This parking lot has been the staging area of the Nevada Conservation Corps for the better part of ten years now. However, most of UNR’s student population of 16,000 would never know. NCC and ICVE members congregate at this parking lot between six and six-thirty every Monday morning to load up their gear, collect project details, and fan out across Nevada to various project sites, rehabilitating and conserving the many open spaces we share. Members live, eat and sleep near their project site, spiking in the forests and deserts of Nevada. After spending up to eight days in the field at a time, the crews once again return to the mostly vacant parking lot late in the afternoon, well after the majority of UNR students have finished their classes for the week, to debrief with GBI staff and unwind for their long weekend ahead. However, for the ICVE-Mexico interns, their weekend may not seem near long enough.
While all of the ICVE-Mexico interns receive academic credit from the Universidad de Guadalajara, of the sixteen interns, ten are also enrolled in full-time course work at Guadalajara’s sister school 150 miles to the west in Melaque, on the pacific coast of Jalisco. So, in addition the forty hours per week spent in the field as required for the internship, and four hours of intensive English classes, these ten students from Melaque spend up to fifteen hours per week taking on-line tests and completing homework assignments from their home university.
Throughout the 14 week course, the ICVE-Mexico interns receive cross-disciplinary training and education in conservation. To better understand aspects of the diverse ecosystems Nevada has to offer, the ICVE-Mexico interns support an array of ongoing projects of the Nevada Conservation Corps. From practicing varied approaches in removing noxious weeds along the Truckee River corridor, rehabilitating riparian zones in the Jarbige Wilderness, forest fuels reduction/restoration in the Lake Tahoe Basin and constructing a new trail system in the high, remote, deserts near Hickison Summit, the ICVE-Mexico interns were given a curriculum of projects focused on erosion control in sensitive riparian zones and watersheds. This applied education and training will prepare these biologists to work environmental issues facing them at home, on central Mexico’s Pacific coast.
With Nevada Day (October 31) just around the corner, the inaugural field season for ICVE-Mexico is drawing to a close. The interns are now seasoned field conservationists. In their short, fourteen week course the interns treated and rehabilitated over 22 acres of forest and riparian zones and built 1.5 miles of new trail for Nevadans to enjoy. With their research papers turned in and graded, their field evaluations completed, it is time for the interns to say good-bye to their adopted GBI family, their new-found friends in the NCC, and the Nevada wilderness they have come to call home. As they load their belongings back into the large, white, GBI truck – again, being overly cautious not to forget their iPods for the long drive ahead – the delightful, fun-loving group falls silent. Little by little, they are realizing that this journey has come to an end and it is time to head back to the state of Jalisco, back to their studies, carrying with them, perhaps, the summer experience of a lifetime.