Pleasant Creek in Capitol Reef National Park nourishes a small oasis of tall grasses, wildflowers, shady cottonwoods and aromatic sagebrush. The area also nourishes students from Utah Valley University and other institutions of higher learning in a rare cooperative effort between UVU and the National Park Service.
"I think the partnership between the park and UVU is really unique," said Michael Stevens, the director of the field station and an associate professor of biology at UVU. "It gives us opportunities to visit the park, the Colorado Plateau and Capitol Reef in particular. It is a great place to practice engaged learning." That includes practical, real life, hands-on experience, he said.
"They try something new, learn about the place by actual experience," Stevens said. "It really fits with the university's mission."
The partnership between UVU and the parks system benefits both parties.
"The park's mission is to make sure that people understand and appreciate and value the preservation of land and resources," Stevens said. "It exposes a lot of people to the national park mission generally. It is an opportunity to connect them with the Colorado Plateau ecosystem."
Some other colleges and universities have similar field stations, but very few of them are located in national parks, he said.
Scott Brown is the chief ranger for Capitol Reef National Park and serves as the liaison between the NPS and the field station.
"A lot of universities do have field stations," he said. "Some are on park service land. This is probably the only one in Utah. We are proud of it. It is a nice facility that is new. We work very closely with UVU."
Tom Morris, a BYU sedimentologist and stratigrapher, said he enjoys the field station.
"It is a fabulous facility," he said. "It is environmentally engineered to be mostly solar power, including the water system. It is a gorgeous place with lots to learn and lots to be taught there."
As in real estate, the key for the field station is location, location, location.
"Capitol Reef National Park is the most geologically diverse park that Utah has," he said. "It has 17 geological formations that span 275 million years of earth history. To a geologist and a backpacker, Capitol Reef is a very special place. It is a gem."
Geologists and backpackers are not the only people who have used the field station. There was a recent group measuring the sediment flow of the creek. Some environmental writers spent time there. Another group spent a couple of weeks photographing the area.
"There is no shortage of things to photograph here," interim site manager Gregory Kelly said. "It is monsoon season here now. There are beautiful clouds and thunder and lightning."
For each group that comes to the field station, Kelly provides an orientation which addresses how the facility operates, its history, the geology, flora and fauna of the area, along with environmental ethics.
"There is a variety of classes that come through and do research," he said. "Every class has a different take on what the field station can be used for and what they can offer. I like being around educational groups. There is always learning going on. I get to further my knowledge as well."
The students are not the only ones who benefit from the partnership.
"Things are going great with our relationship between the park service and UVU," Ranger Brown said. "We have been really pleased with it. So far it has been a real win-win."
One advantage is that more people get exposed to the parks and their culture and gain an appreciation they might not otherwise have had.
"We are always looking for opportunities, trying to instill relevancy with the National Park Service," Brown said. "People can get down and be involved in the resources in the park. We reap a fair amount of science benefit from the station as well. Some of the research we have gotten we benefit from." One example he noted was that of professor Heath Ogden who has been inventorying insects of the area.
"It is a model of success," Brown said. "Every park unit is different. This is certainly a successful model." The National Park Service has more than 400 units, he said. Some of those are natural resource oriented, while others relate to culture and history.
Director Stevens gave some examples of research projects which have been conducted at the station.
"In botany, Renee Van Buren, a faculty member, is studying the impact that park visitors and the field station generate," he said. "That is valuable to the field station and also to the park. In entomology, Heath Ogden is working on a field guide of the insects of Capitol Reef. That can be shared by the field station and park visitors. In physics, Kim Nielsen is taking advantage of the dark night sky, so far away from the areas of light pollution."
When students are involved, the field station provides a place for the university's emphasis on "engaged learning."
"It is practical, real life, hands-on experience," Stevens said. "The field station provides a venue for engaged learning. They try something new, learn about a place by actual experience. It really fits well with the university's mission."
Phil Kelly, a faculty member at BYU, uses the field station to teach outdoor recreation students.
"Our class focus for this trip, as well as the other activities we participated in during this semester, were the Leave No Trace principles," he wrote for the field station website. "My hope for my students is that they not only process the information, but that they find a way to incorporate these principles into their lives. I feel that we really did make a good effort during the two days we were in Capitol Reef and hope that each of us can continue to respect the stewardship we have each been given for this amazing earth that we have been blessed with. I am so grateful that the Park Service and UVU had the vision and foresight to create the Capitol Reef Field Station. It is a wonderful place to learn and to experience new adventures."
The field station began operations in October 2008, but the area has decades of history. In 1882, Ephraim Hanks established the first ranch on the property. Fifty years ago, the ruins of that ranch could be faintly traced on the valley floor. Most of those traces have been erased by time, wind and sand.
Hanks eventually diverted water from Pleasant Creek to irrigate farm fields and fruit trees. When those trees bloomed, they gave the ranch one of its earliest names, The Floral Ranch. In 1938, the ranch was owned by one of Hanks's descendants and Lurt and Margaret Knee were in the area looking for a place to start a tour operation. Their vehicle broke down and they ended up purchasing five acres and later the entire ranch. They called their property the Sleeping Rainbow Ranch after the layers of colorful rock. In 1978 the Knees passed the ranch to the Park Service with a provision to continue their tenancy. Two decades later the properties became part of Capitol Reef National Park and the transition to the field station began.
"They began in the '90s to figure out how it would work," Gregory Kelly said. "It was a long process, and included getting donors and grants."
There are classrooms, plus two dorms that can house up to 12 people each. The facility was designed for low impact and low energy use, Gregory Kelly said. It has its own water treatment facility.
"It has large windows, with passive heating and cooling," he said. "The walls allow the sun to warm the bricks that are exposed behind a piece of glass. It heats it in the winter and we close the shades in the summer.
"It is very comfortable living. Guests are often surprised by how nice it is."