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New Director Takes Over At UM Wilderness Institute

Andrew Larson is the new director of the University of Montana’s Wilderness Institute.
Courtesy Andrew Larson
Andrew Larson is the new director of the University of Montana’s Wilderness Institute.";

Andrew Larson, The new director of the University of Montana’s Wilderness Institute wants to continue refining the organization’s core mission of education, research and service. But Larson also says, "One of the things that I’m hoping we can accomplish is to place wilderness in a broader context."

Larson, a PhD forest ecologist and associate UM professor says there’s a tendency, sometimes even among wilderness professionals, to view wilderness as somehow walled-off and separate from other public lands.

"We know that bears and wolverines and rivers don’t recognize a boundary on the map. Wilderness is not about taking something away. Wilderness is an element of this rich mosaic of public lands. I think I want to really try to do a better job of placing wilderness in that context," he says.

The 45-year-old Wilderness Institute is housed in UM’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, where Larson teaches. It offers research and service opportunities, a graduate certificate in wilderness management, and undergrad credit through a popular Wilderness and Civilization course. The Institute also educates professional land managers.

Larson says it the Institute deliberately avoids politicizing the various public lands issues that have become political hot potatoes.

"We prepare our students for these political and broader social discussions and decisions and activism by fostering critical thinking, reflection and self-disciplined thought."

The Republican members of Montana’s congressional delegation, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte last year penned bills to challenge Wilderness Study Area designations. The 2017 Legislature passed a resolution to do the same.

We have a new session of the Montana Legislature starting. Congress is, I guess, back at it. I asked Larson what he thinks will be the big wilderness-related issues will be over the next several months.

"You know, I can’t, I can’t even tell you. I don’t know. That’s kind of out of, really, where I focus a lot of my academic and professional effort. I’m not the right person to ask that."

Through its partnership with federal organizations, including the UM-based Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute and Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center, the Institute also serves as a kind of clearinghouse for distribution of timely research.

"Many people will know that program through, a huge and long-lived website that serves the public and the professional wilderness management community as an information source of all things wilderness related."

Larson says the site gets about a half-million unique users every year. In fact, it persevered through January’s partial government shutdown.

"I don’t have the numbers right in front of me, but I think we had something like about 40,000 visitors that were still able to access the resources, despite the federal government being shut down. I think that really exemplifies the power of our partnerships with the federal agencies when they get put in a bind, like the shutdown, we’re able to maintain continuity of mission and service to the public."

Globally, Larson says wildlands left virtually undisturbed by human activity are becoming increasingly scarce.

"Another opportunity for us is to begin to look beyond the borders of the United States. There are wildlands and wilderness in other countries, and the expertise and capacity that we can bring doesn’t stop at the border, right? These are global issues. I think that’s an opportunity for us."

And Missoula, he says, is well positioned to become a global leader in wilderness stewardship.

"Yeah. Missoula, Montana is one of the most important places in terms of the wilderness legacy and as a center of wilderness science, of wilderness education and wilderness training. So, going forward I think Missoula has a place as a focal point for wilderness leadership."

UM Wilderness Institute’s new director, Andrew Larson, replaces Natelie Dawson who departed the organization last month to lead the Audubon Society’s Alaska state office. 

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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