This is Not Cancun: Three Environmental Spring Break Trips That Broke The Mold


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Every spring break,

while many NU students lounge in the tropical sun or soak up the rays from their laptop screens during Netflix binges, a handful choose to do something different.

For one week, Alternative Student Breaks (ASB) takes small groups of students on volunteer trips to sites around and outside the US. Three of those trips include a class the group takes together during Winter Quarter, learning about the issues they'll see when they arrive at their locations.

From poisonous shopping mall plants to domesticated wolves to a Native American reservation, each of these writers had a unique experience connected to the environment. After returning to campus, they look back on their trips.

 Las Casas De La Selva

By Jessie Moravek

“This plant has poisonous sap. If you get sap in your eyes, you go blind for six months. Do not touch this plant.”

We all stared at the two-foot high waxy-leaved offender. It looked more like something from a shopping mall planter than a blinding rainforest terror. But we, a bunch of Northwestern students on a spring break service trip to plant trees in the Puerto Rican jungle, were not ones to judge.

Such was our ASB trip – a healthy mix of volunteerism, physical work and mild danger. We volunteered with Tropic Ventures at Las Casas de la Selva, a sustainable timber harvesting operation near Patillas, Puerto Rico.

Las Casas focuses on the sustainable management, harvest and sale of endangered trees like mahogany and mahoe. Volunteer groups visit the site throughout the year to help plant trees, clear trails, maintain the homestead and learn about sustainable rainforest management.

Sustainable timber harvest is quite the challenge. First of all, trees take a long time to grow. The success of a project like Las Casas depends on longevity, since trees have to get big to be valuable. Second, when the tree is ready for harvest, you can’t just chop the thing down. It takes lots of skill and years of training with a chainsaw to fell a tree so that it does not harm the trees around it or the chainsaw operator.

To make it easier to cut down trees, species like mahogany are often planted in rows, called “line planting.” The lines are interspersed within the plants that make up the dense, diverse Puerto Rican rainforest, including, of course, the dreaded “poisonous plant” (the name of which I still don’t know).

The other hard part about managing trees is actually getting through the forest. Rainforests grow really fast, so it’s hard to keep trails clear. That’s what we were there to do-- clearing a path to one of the mahogany line plots.

But poisonous plants were everywhere, and we had to touch them to pull them out. I thought every sweaty itch and bug bite would become a 6-month horror story. I was certain I would go blind, miss spring quarter, lose my internship, fail the GRE…

Eventually, we cleared a small patch of sunlight in the dense forest canopy without anybody ending up on the ground screaming in pain. Satisfied with the day’s work, and relieved we didn’t fall victim to the plant, we trekked back to the homestead. On the way, we asked Andres, our fearless guide, about the mysterious “poisonous plant”

“Oh, that plant? Yes, it is poisonous. But it is also used very often as decoration in American shopping malls.”

Just goes to show, from mahogany to poisonous mall decorations, resources from the rainforest are endless. That’s the most important idea I learned in Puerto Rico – it may be challenging to manage, but the resources and benefits that come from the rainforest are unparalleled. I’m convinced we must protect these valuable ecosystems, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to do so this spring break.

But more importantly, I now know to never, ever touch the plants in a shopping mall.


Mission Wolf

By Rachael Sarette

In many stories wolves are the bad guys who eat pigs and little girls.

So why did I sign up to take a class on wolves and then go visit a wolf sanctuary over spring break? I’m still not sure why, but I’m glad I did.

All last quarter, I took a class about wolves, their ecological roles and the ways we as humans have interacted with them. First of all, it taught me that wolves are shy creatures that would never eat people or pigs because they are too fatty. But wolves are important in ecosystems because they eat deer and other animals, preventing overgrazing and increasing the biodiversity of the community. In the past, people messed up wolf populations by nearly hunting them to extinction in order to save cattle. Now, we mess up wolf populations by trying to keep them as pets and treating them as dogs instead of as the beautiful majestic creatures that they are.

Once classes ended, we started spring break with an 18-hour car ride to Mission: Wolf near Westcliffe, Colorado. Our first day at Mission: Wolf consisted of cutting up dead horses and deer into wolf-sized pieces (or, for the more squeamish participants, chopping up fire wood). All of the animals that Mission: Wolf feeds to their wolves are donated, and are either road kill or have died of natural causes. In the wild, wolves eat large meals every few days, and the staff try to emulate this by feeding them meat twice a week. So while cutting up the dead animals wasn’t the most pleasant job, it was necessary in order for the wolves to remain as natural as possible. Also, throwing the cut-up meat to the wolves and watching them eat was a great experience.

Later that day, we got to meet the wolves for the first time. I was nervous because even though these wolves are trained to ignore their nature and calmly approach humans, they are still wild creatures. However, when Abe, the alpha ambassador wolf, walked up to me and immediately flopped on to the ground in hopes of a belly rub, I fell in love.

After meeting Abe we got to walk around the sanctuary and see some of the more shy wolves from a distance. Just like humans, wolves have different personalities, and while some of the wolves were outgoing and excited to meet us, others were more aloof or frightened. Seeing all the different wolves and hearing the stories about how they ended up at Mission: Wolf made me realize just how much damage humans are capable of. People buy wolves as pets because breeders sell them as wolf-dogs who will be fierce yet loyal guard dogs. However, dogs only have the mental capacity of a two year old wolf, and once wolves become older they are less dependent on humans and appear unruly in the eyes of their owners. As the wolves became too much to handle, they would have been euthanized if they hadn’t been saved by Mission: Wolf.

It's great that Mission: Wolf exists, but it shouldn’t have to. Wolves should be living in the wild, keeping the deer populations in check and roaming free instead of being loved while they are young and then being tossed aside once they grow up. While I loved my time at Mission: Wolf hanging out with the other participants and meeting the wolves, I learned that these fierce creatures need to be protected from us, and that the public needs to be educated on wolves so that these intelligent and important animals can live without human interference.


Cheyenne River Youth Project

By Scott Brown

For most of my life, my idea of Native Americans mostly consisted of oversimplified images of hunter-gatherers from high school history books. It wasn’t until last quarter, when I took an ASB class on Native Americans and environmental justice, that I started realizing that, as an environmental activist, there was a whole lot of ignorance I needed to work through.

The class helped, but even after ten weeks, I could only understand and empathize so much while sitting in the basement of Annenberg. Which is why over spring break, my group drove out to Eagle Butte, South Dakota, tribal headquarters of the Cheyenne River Reservation, to experience the community firsthand.

We volunteered at the Cheyenne River Youth Project (CRYP), a grassroots nonprofit offering services to children and families in Eagle Butte. We worked every day with the Project’s staff putting together programs for the dozens of kids and teens who came to the center every day. I helped plan a jungle-themed birthday party, gave an obscene amount of piggyback rides around the playground, and swallowed bad memories of high school gym class to play three-on-three basketball.

But it wasn’t until I left the youth center and got out into the community that I began to see some of the environmental injustice these kids live with. We went out as a group one morning to try cleaning up some of the cigarette packs, empty cans and candy wrappers tumbling in the wind all over Eagle Butte’s yards and sidewalks. While some of this is from littering, much is blown in from the landfill located on the edge of town. On top of this, the other side of Eagle Butte is home to a sewage treatment plant. One CRYP staff member said all summer long, while kids play outside, the hot wind drags the sour stench through the streets.

During the week, I also talked with Joseph, who at 19 years old is a full-time CRYP staff member and community organizer. He talked about training community members in “nonviolent direct action”, like shut downs and sit-ins, in order to combat corruption within Eagle Butte’s tribal government. He said money meant for community improvement, like addressing the garbage issue or improving the sewage system, is instead being funneled to pay local politicians’ salaries. Additionally, he told me about oil companies working with state governments to allow oil-trucking and pipeline-building through the reservation, despite tribal members’ concerns that spills could contaminate their water and land.

It took me an entire class and a week of seeing, hearing, and smelling to finally get a sense of what environmental injustice means for communities like Eagle Butte. It’s a feeling that nobody thinks you deserve to live in a place that is clean or healthy or beautiful. All you’re worth is a landfill and a sewage plant.

Activists like Joseph give me hope. He sees Eagle Butte’s problems, but he hasn’t given up. I could see it in his eyes every time he ran after a kid on the playground or passed a basketball to a teen in the gym: he fights for change because he loves his community and the people who live in it, especially the kids.

As for me, while I hope that my short time in Eagle Butte made some sort of impact, I owe the kids and staff at CRYP much more than they owe me. As an environmental activist from a privileged background, I’ve struggled to grasp the human impacts of issues like climate change or pollution. But after spending a week running, playing and laughing with the kids of Eagle Butte, I’m starting to see that the fight to protect the planet isn’t just for the sake of beautiful landscapes and animals. It’s about showing these kids that they do deserve better, and that others care enough about them to fight for that right.

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