Diversity and Democracy

Seeking Common Ground in the Swan Valley

As a junior in the Global Leadership Initiative at the University of Montana, I spent my fall 2013 semester exploring, through place-based field work, the complex, overarching global challenges of sustainable natural resource management. These challenges span all countries and cross cultural and political boundaries. It is possible to practice using the tools for addressing global problems by engaging at the local level. Despite having the opportunity to study abroad, I chose to observe and understand global issues within a neighboring locale.

During my field experience, I had the privilege of living and studying in the rural community of Condon, Montana, a two-hour drive north of Missoula. With a human population of 548, Condon’s landscape is wild, and its views are monumental. Mountain peaks guard the valley floor, overlooking the Swan River and the surrounding wildlife-rich forests. The two-month-long field course is offered by Northwest Connections, a nonprofit organization focused on community conservation and education. Alongside ten peers from universities around the country, I learned about the interconnectedness that exists among people, across the natural environment, and between people and the environment.

I have always had an interest in freshwater: its movement, its use, and its health as an ecosystem. Through the Northwest Connections course, I explored the mountains, forests, and fields of the Swan Valley while discussing the complex internal and external interactions of the watershed. Students in the course toured sawmills, logging operations, and forest fire burns. We visited with ranchers, environmentalists, and business owners. We tracked bears, debated the health of fisheries, and studied wolves. Through communication with the local people and wildlife, I came to wholeheartedly appreciate the importance of a healthy watershed.

The community of Condon is actively working to preserve the integrity of nearby rivers and streams, while balancing environmental, social, and economic health. These overlapping goals have led to collaborative efforts from groups of people with diverse interests who are working proactively to address current and future problems. By participating in these efforts, I have witnessed the need to communicate and to listen. I have learned to seek common ground and focus energy toward shared goals rather than apparent differences. I have concluded that productive communication and a deep understanding of place are catalysts toward developing globally relevant solutions and an appreciation for our interconnected world.

I thank the people of the Swan Valley for sharing their homes, their time, and their company. I am grateful to them for teaching me lessons that far surpassed my expectations, for challenging my thinking, and for inspiring me to pursue collaborative approaches to difficult global problems.

Editor's note: For more on the Global Leadership Initiative at the University of Montana, see Arlene Walker-Andrews's article in this issue of Diversity & Democracy.


Cody Dems is a junior studying resource conservation and communication at the University of Montana.

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