A love of the BadlandsSix years ago University of Wisconsin-Madison student Travis Tennessen took your average family vacation to the North Dakota Badlands.
By: John Odermann, The Dickinson Press
Six years ago University of Wisconsin-Madison student Travis Tennessen took your average family vacation to the North Dakota Badlands.
Something unexpected happened.
“I came out here … and fell in love with the landscape and I thought the culture was really interesting and familiar to me from living in Alaska and Wisconsin,” Tennessen said. “And I was studying in school all these different places and the environmental conflicts that were going on and stuff and I started to learn about those things going on here and just became more and more fascinated with it and how incredible it was.”
Now, Tennessen is sharing his love of the Badlands with 11 students whom accompanied him on a campus ministry trip to North Dakota.
“Too much of our education is sitting in classrooms trying to be taught about a place,” Tennessen said. “I think people learn the best by doing and seeing.”
And if what they did on Friday — their first of four work days at Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit — is any indication, there’s plenty for them to see and do.
Tennessen wrote his senior thesis and master’s thesis in geography on the environmental conflicts of the region, including land management changes, national park history and various conflicts that arose as a result.
When he taught an environmental conservation class at Wisconsin, instead of teaching about the rain forest or coral reefs, Tennessen taught about the Badlands.
“I feel like I have a responsibility to bring people to appreciate the things that I’ve come to appreciate about this place,” Tennessen said. “It’s a beautiful place to know about and teach about and it’s fun to get people excited about North Dakota because they don’t think that’s what they’re going to be taught about.”
A couple of his students noticed his passion and while on an earlier service trip to Costa Rica, North Dakota trip co-leaders Sunny Reichertz and Madelin Jensen suggested he organize a similar trip to the Badlands.
Reichertz said the conflicts in the Badlands are a microcosm of the rest of the country.
“I think it’s just at the heart of American controversies and issues with nature, which is at the base of everything that people think of and work with and do in America whether they notice it or not,” Reichertz said. “It’s really at home to American values and what should we do with our land that we get everything from.”
Trip participants had to go through an application and interview process. The ability to handle hard work was among the qualifications.
The theme of the trip is “Belonging in the Badlands” and the group will discuss environmental issues and what it means to belong somewhere.
“What does it mean to have a home? What it means to be a citizen of this nation? What it means to be a citizen of this world?” Tennessen said. “That’s a political and an economic question but it’s also a social and a spiritual question, as well.”
Over the course of the trip, the group will visit with several people involved with the issues surrounding the Badlands, including ranchers like Roger Myers, whose land borders the park’s South Unit, grazing association officials and others.
The group was introduced to Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit’s back country ranger and rancher John Heiser, who has worked at the park for more than 40 years.
After hiking a couple miles with fence posts on their backs Friday, the group found themselves on top of a butte on the North Unit’s south boundary, fixing fence with Heiser.
Over the course of the hike, Heiser didn’t disappoint, living up to the reputation Tennessen had spoken of in class.
“He made him sound like pretty extreme, but he is pretty extreme,” laughed Julia Oschwald, an elementary education and environmental studies major. “He’s got a big personality and he’s just full of energy and he’s got a lot to say and he’s cool. He’s everything Travis made him out to be.”
Heiser is a personality like you won’t meet, said Jen Bloesch, a community and environmental sociology and communications arts major. “I just really respect people who say I might be a lot different than people around me, but that’s how I am and I’m OK with that.”
Heiser made an impact like few others have on Tennessen, when he came to North Dakota to work on his thesis.
“There are very few people in North America and even in the world today that I think have lived in a place and paid attention to it as long and as hard as John has paid attention to this place,” Tennessen said. “It’s wrapped up in his identity more than any person that I’ve met probably.”
Being a rancher, a park employee, a naturalist and a conservationist means that Heiser represents many sides of the issues that he and his group hope to examine over their time in the Badlands, Tennessen said.
The group got a chance to learn from Heiser, not only about environmental issues, but also about ranch-related tasks like how to fix fence. The group learned why being able to put in a hard day’s work was a trip pre-requisite.
Hiking a couple miles with fence posts is hard enough, but taking them up and down steep buttes adds an entirely different dimension to the job, Oschwald said.
“It was rough, we had the posts and the barb wire, but it was cool because every place we got to, the views were spectacular,” Oschwald said. “I knew we were going to be working hard, and we’re working really hard.”
Heiser said the group performed excellently during its first day of work.
“They passed with flying colors,” Heiser said. “I like interacting, especially with youngsters who are inquisitive, they’re energetic, they want to learn, they have good attitudes.”
Struck by the beauty
When they leave the North Unit Monday before heading to the Black Hills of South Dakota, Tennessen is confident it’s an experience his students will remember.
“I’m thrilled to be able to share this place with as many people as I can,” he said. “I try to do it through my class, but this is so much more intimate and meaningful for people.”
Many in the group were struck by the beauty of the Badlands when they first came into view for them Thursday afternoon.
“It was really cool to drive west and it was really flat for awhile and all of a sudden it was just Badlands out of nowhere,” Oschwald said. “It was really spectacular.”
Reichertz, who helped recruit people for the trip said even she had no idea what the Badlands would actually look like.
“I really did not expect this. Even from Travis’ lectures and experiences,” Reichertz said with a laugh. “In the posters and flyers they didn’t put anything in like this.”
Heiser said what Tennessen has done is something that many professors are unable to do.
“He inspires his students, and that’s a good thing,” Heiser said. “That’s a lot of what this is about. It’s about inspiring humans to get back out to where we came from. We came from the great outdoors.”