Published: April 21, 2012

Students in Professor Sarah Krakoff’s Advanced Natural Resources Law seminar hit the road over spring break to travel the Colorado Plateau for an interactive learning experience that included everything from gaining a first-hand understanding of water rights and building a teepee on the Navajo nation to hiking through Utah and exploring ancient Puebloan sites and even changing a car tire.

The seminar focuses on the legal conflicts that characterize the Colorado Plateau, a unique geological formation rich in natural resources and an area that many native tribes call their home.

Exploring the intersections among environmental, resource, and Native concerns presented once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for students to learn about the human cost of development in the Colorado Plateau region.

“The same geological forces that created this interesting formation also provide rich natural resource deposits including coal, oil and gas, uranium, and at the same time, beautiful places people like to go visit and recreate in, such as the Canyonlands and Arches National Park in Moab,” Krakoff said.

The trip began in Durango, Colorado where students learned about the Animas-La Plata Project, which diverts water from the Animas River to off-stream storage in the Ridges Basin. Settlement of the water rights of Colorado’s Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes with municipal interests in water diversion brought the students to this location.

“This is classic bureau of reclamation and western water law logic,” Krakoff said. “If you have a right to water, you better get your project built, and you better sock it away and save it, or else someday your legal right will mean nothing because someone else will have diverted your water.”

Water rights remain a concern for the Navajo Nation’s Hard Rock chapter, where the class learned about the community’s efforts to bring basic resources like infrastructure and water to the area. While staying near Pinon, part of the Navajo’s territory in a remote part of Arizona, the students helped their host Marshall Johnson construct a 13-sleeper teepee, their shelter for the evening.

“It was a real sign of respect to the students that Marshall was willing to host them, put the teepee up, and that he also lit a fire for them and told a traditional Navajo prayer,” Krakoff said. “I lived on the Navajo nation for three years and it is not every group of outsiders who are treated this way.”

In addition, the class traveled to Marble Canyon and stayed at a ranch owned by the Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the land to something resembling its natural ecological state. The students observed the proposed dam site on the Colorado River that would have flooded what is now Grand Canyon National Park if it had been erected.

“It is fun for students to see that this is where there would have been a gigantic reservoir if it weren’t for the activism of the environmental groups in the 1960s,” Krakoff said.

Early in the trip, the group hiked the ridges and canyons in Bluff, Utah to examine the significance of the 1979 Archeological Resources Protection Act. With the help of a seasoned archeologist, the students were able to see ancient Puebloan sites and learn how to recognize the different phases of pottery.

Colorado Law has “fantastic students, and the ones who sign up for this are extremely knowledgeable and motivated. They know what this class will entail,” Krakoff said.

Outdoor enthusiasts reveled in the opportunities for exploration along the Colorado Plateau and worked collectively to ensure an enriching learning experience was complemented with the ability to navigate the practicalities of a long road trip.

“Everyone stepped up in different ways to get food and do cooking and cleaning,” Krakoff said. “We had one flat tire and one of my students had to spend about 40 minutes underneath another student’s vehicle trying to pry the spare off.”

The trip expanded the students’ knowledge in natural resources law through tangible interactions with the people and places affected by the resolution of legal conflict.

“The places and communities we visited form the foundations and backdrop for the legal questions, which are how much should we extract versus how much should we protect, and why?” Krakoff said.