Venture High students to share oral storytelling project about public lands

Wednesday , April 19, 2017 - 1:53 PM

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

When teaching teens about Utah’s public lands, and the many nuanced attitudes that accompany them, it helps to hit the trail.

With the controversy about Bears Ears National Monument still stirring up the state, around 30 students from Venture Academy High School visited the region between March 27 and March 30. They interviewed tourists, business owners and local government officials about the area. They traveled to different lands managed by different entities, from the National Park Service to the Bureau of Land Management to Utah State Parks.

They collected audio from the adventure, building their own oral storytelling project about public lands and learning a little about their value along the way.

On Friday, April 21, they’ll also get a chance to share the project on live radio.

“The most important thing I learned was that Bears Ears was a place, and there was a problem behind it,” said 10th-grade student Mason Strebel. “I had no idea that was a thing.”

President Barack Obama declared 1.35 million acres in Southern Utah the Bears Ears National Monument last year during his final days in office. The move drew praise from local native tribes and environmentalists. It spurred animosity from the Utah’s elected officials and local leaders in San Juan County. Utah politicians are urging President Trump to rescind the designation.

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The Venture High students interviewed both supporters of the monument and local leaders who are troubled by it.

“The mayor of Monticello ... brought up a good point that there are extreme arguments on both sides,” said 10th-grader Kobee Jensen. “The extreme argument (against) conserving it is, you won’t even get to walk on the land or use the land at all.”

The extreme argument for those in favor of conservation is, “They didn’t want people drilling for oil and cutting trees down,” Mason said. “But then (the mayor) said no one actually had any intention of doing that.”

With the main access road to the heart of Bears Ears closed due to snow, the students toured Natural Bridges National Monument, Canyonlands National Park and Goblin Valley State Park, learning how various lands are funded and managed.

The residents, visitors and tourists they spoke with along the way shared their perspectives on the public lands debate.

“I learned that even though there were some people that were super, super upset about it, the majority of people just weren’t sure what was going to happen next,” said Tacy Petersen, a student in the 10th grade. “They wanted to know who would be in charge, what was going on, if they would lose their permits, or if they would not be allowed to cut down wood.”

For 12th-grader Porter Peterson, the interviews revealed the amount of misinformation circulating about the national monument.

“A lot of people would argue a side that actually had no weight behind it,” he said. “So it’s important to go to the source and get the actual information, not just believe what you hear.”

The idea for the hands-on public lands learning experience came from English teachers Claire Wolters and Elizabeth Wallace. 

“(We) always try to figure out ways ... to allow kids to either encounter stories, or tell their own story or do something that is English-y but doesn’t feel English-y,” Wolters said. “Oral storytelling came to mind. We thought about Bears Ears, and it continued to be more and more in the forefront, so the impact of public lands just seemed like the obvious topic.”

The students also had a chance to experience the extremes that often come with adventuring in public lands, from flat tires to setting up camp in the middle of a hailstorm. The highs and lows, however, helped the students build their own personal stories and connections with the public lands they explored.

“There were times sitting around the fire, where the conversation popped up ... ‘Isn’t it great we have this space to play on and to learn on and have this experience?’ ” Wolters said. “I think it was really neat listening to the kids understand there is no one side ... and once you do have a point of view, it often changes.”

The Venture High School students will share audio and stories from their public lands project during KRCL Community Radio’s RadioActive live broadcast airing at 6 p.m. on Friday, April 21. Tune in at 90.9 FM or stream the program at 

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or Follow her on or on Twitter @LeiaLaresn.

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