UMW News Bureau
Five students from a University of Montana Western environmental interpretation class are making a lasting mark on two of Montana’s most famous historic mining towns, Virginia and Nevada Cities.
Environmental sciences professor Linda Lyon and students Alexa Coniglione, Gina Pasini, Steve Keller, Buck Bradford and Tye Roth teamed up with Bill Peterson, curator of interpretation and education for the Montana Heritage Commission, on a self-guided informational tour of the natural history and current environmental state of the former mining camps.
“We took on the role of a professional interpretive planning team,” Lyon said of her class.
The students’ project, “A Healing Environment,” focuses on the extensive environmental damage the mining created and the subsequent natural recovery occurring there. Their work will be incorporated in four interpretive signs for a new 1.5-mile trail through Virginia and Nevada Cities. The trail is part of a larger ongoing community-wide project spearheaded by the Montana Heritage Commission.
Peterson said the students’ work provided the Montana Heritage Commission with invaluable insight into the area’s natural state.
“Our site consists mainly of history, preservation and museum professionals and not environmental studies professionals,” Peterson explained. “Working with UMW’s environmental sciences students allowed better environmental interpretation.”
Using a range of expertise —biological naturalism, geological naturalism, and field and game enforcement — the students pieced together Alder Gulch’s natural history with their current studies of the area to produce the content for the interpretive signs.
Prospectors discovered gold in Alder Gulch, where the mining camps are located, in 1863. The quiet gulch soon became the largest inland town in the Northwest in 1864 with a population of around 10,000. When the mining camps began to dissolve upon U.S. involvement in WWII, the vacating population left behind a scarred landscape.
The mining damage was so extensive it devastated Alder Gulch’s ecosystem, heavily impacting Alder Creek and plant and animal life. Though the gulch will never be what it once was, the natural systems are recovering. The students’ work documents these drastic transformations.
The students said they were challenged by the lack of information on the natural state of Alder Gulch before the gold rush. Relying on photos from the Montana Historical Society and knowledge of surrounding, similar ecosystems, students produced an informational snapshot of Alder Gulch’s natural history.
The students concluded the area was a “typical cottonwood bottom” riparian area rich in plant and animal life. Mining disrupted the natural meander of Gold Creek, segmenting the water and interrupting the role of keystone species, such as the beaver, upon which many other species rely.
Today, Alder Gulch is an environment in recovery. Gold Creek is returning to as natural a flow as the environment now allows, beavers are returning, and so are birds like wood ducks and great blue herons.
“It won’t ever be back to its natural state, but it can be a healthy ecosystem,” student Tye Roth said. “It’s a very unique and special place that you can observe that happening.”
The commission also tasked the students with the difficult job of translating complicated scientific information to the lay public, including children.
“We wanted the signs to be interactive with the habitat so that visitors could look around and piece it together with the signs,” student Gina Pasini said. “Instead of it being passive, we wanted people to be engaged with their surroundings.”
The students’ four signs each have a theme: “A Scar on the Landscape,” “The Remarkable Riparian,” “A Recovering Ecosystem,” and “Home is Where the Habitat Is.”
The project provided the students with the unique opportunity to perform authentic workforce activities in their fields — a hallmark of Montana Western’s experiential learning and block scheduling program, Experience One. Montana Western is the only four-year public university in the country to offer this program in which students take one class at a time with an emphasis on hands-on, real-world learning.
“It gives us an edge in the field because we’ve already had the experience of 30 hours of shadowing,” Roth said of Experience One. “This is a real project that is going to happen. It was definitely a confidence builder working on this.” Bill Peterson said the partnership produced positive results for all involved.
“I would like to think that in the long run we helped UMW educate students by providing off campus learning opportunities while we received high quality work in return,” Peterson said. “A win-win all the way around.”