Late July 2009, Nogales, Arizona. A hundred meters from the US-Mexico border, in the sweltering, early morning hours of this dusty border town, three Great Basin Institute staff members are gathered at McDonald’s. They haven’t come for breakfast burritos or hash browns. Nor is this a pit stop en route to the next town. This fast food landmark is the destination of a two-day road trip that began at the Institute’s headquarters, in Reno, Nevada. The purpose of the trip? Sixteen Universidad de Guadalajara biology students will soon arrive, eager to catch a lift north to the Great Basin and the University of Nevada, Reno. There, these students from central Mexico will embark on a fourteen week internship, sponsored by the Institute’s International Conservation Volunteer Exchange (ICVE). The internship program will immerse these apprentice biologists in ecological restoration projects, field classes, intensive English classes, and the Great Basin Institute family.
ICVE-Mexico grew out of GBI’s long-standing restoration and education projects on Mexico’s central Pacific coast. GBI founder and Executive Director, Jerry Kier, describes his motive for the program: “In 2001, on behalf of the Institute, I developed an international field course for the Costa Alegre area, on Mexico’s central Pacific coast. With support from the University of Nevada, Reno, this course explored issues related to Mexico’s coastal environment and natural resources.”
From 2001–2004, GBI’s Mexico field courses engaged over 70 students in international conservation theory and practice. Students from a range of disciplines 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. Since then, more than 180 international students and volunteers have joined GBI and its network of faculty researchers from the University of Nevada, along with partnering institutions, including the University of South Florida, California State Channel Islands, and Chico State University.
Long term, Keir envisioned field studies in Mexico as a cultural exchange of conservation practices, one that linked the ecological restoration courses in Mexico with the conservation efforts of the Nevada Conservation Corps—GBI’s largest, long-standing program. He explains, “Based on our success with universities in Mexico, in 2004 we founded the ICVE. This program answers the need for greater global ecological literacy. It makes sense, from a conservation standpoint, to use environmental service as a means to achieve this ecological literacy.”
Now, in the July heat of Nogales’ overcrowded McDonald’s parking lot, excitement and anxiety mounts. All sixteen Guadalajara students have checked in. After a round of friendly greetings, the group loads backpacks, sleeping bags, and suitcases into the camper-covered bed of a large, white, GBI truck, careful to retrieve their iPods before finding a seat for the long journey ahead. After so much planning, the ICVE-Mexico program is ready to roll.
Two days later and some 760 miles north, GBI staff and the biologist interns arrive in Reno. The road-weary interns settle into a furnished brick house with a large, landscaped yard, across the street from the University of Nevada campus. Before heading into the field, the interns will attend a two-day, bilingual orientation designed to introduce them to a range of conservation projects, techniques, and theories. They’ll also complete six hours of training dedicated to project safety.
On the first Monday of August, at dawn, the newly trained ICVE-Mexico interns gather in the University of Nevada-Reno’s northern parking lot to meet the rest of the Corps, 250 strong this summer. This parking lot has been the staging area of the Nevada Conservation Corps for the better part of ten years. NCC and ICVE members gather here between six and six-thirty every Monday morning to load up gear, get project details, and fan out across Nevada, restoring and conserving our public lands. Corps members “spike camp” close to their project site, in the forest and in the desert, twelve months a year. After spending up to eight days in the field, the crews return to the near vacant parking lot in the late afternoon, where they debrief with GBI staff and unwind ahead of their three-day weekend. For ICVE-Mexico interns, however, these weekends seem short.
While all sixteen ICVE-Mexico interns receive academic credit from the Universidad de Guadalajara, ten are also enrolled in full-time course work at Guadalajara’s sister school, located in Melaque, on Jalisco’s Pacific coast. This means that on top of forty hours a week in the field, and four hours a week in intensive English classes, these Melaque students also put in about fifteen hours every week completing on-line tests and homework from their home university. Now that’s dedication!
Throughout the 14 week course, the ICVE-Mexico interns receive cross-disciplinary conservation training and education. To gain first-hand knowledge of Nevada’s varied ecosystems, the interns support a range of ongoing NCC projects. They apply techniques they learn in the classroom to removing noxious weeds along the Truckee River corridor, rehabilitating wetland areas in the Jarbidge Wilderness, reducing forest fuels in the Lake Tahoe Basin, and constructing a new trail system in the high, remote, deserts near Hickison Summit. The course curriculum also focuses on erosion control projects in sensitive wetlands and watersheds. This applied education will prepare these biologists to work on environmental issues facing them at home, on central Mexico’s Pacific coast.
October is nearly over. ICVE-Mexico’s first field season is drawing to a close. Our sixteen biologist interns have become seasoned field conservationists. In fourteen short weeks, they have treated and restored over 22 acres of forest and wetland habitat and built 1.5 miles of new trail for Nevadans to enjoy. They have submitted final research papers and completed field evaluations. As they load their belongings into the back of the large, white, GBI truck— once more retrieving their iPods for the long drive ahead—the gregarious, fun-loving group falls silent. This journey has come to an end. The time has come for the interns to say goodbye to their adopted GBI family, their new found friends in the NCC, and the Nevada wilderness they know so well. As the interns head home to the state of Jalisco, back to their studies, they are, perhaps, carrying with them the summer experience of a lifetime.