U-M’s Rocky Mountain Field Station celebrates 80th anniversary with new housing, expanded course offerings

July 31, 2009
Nancy Ross-Flanigan

ANN ARBOR—An abandoned ranch in a sheltered Wyoming valley with mountain vistas and clear streams seemed an ideal spot for the University of Michigan’s summer surveying camp back in 1929, when it became necessary to relocate the facility from northern Michigan.

The university’s regents approved the purchase of 120 acres for $2,500, crude cabins were erected, and the Camp Davis Rocky Mountain Field Station was born.

This summer the camp—now a teaching and research facility offering courses in geology, ecology, renewable energy and humanities—celebrates its 80th anniversary with the grand opening of a block of new cabins, the first major construction since the camp was built.

The upgrade was overdue, said Camp Davis director Joel Blum. “Although the facility has had some minor improvements—the most notable of which was a new classroom building in 2001—the cabins and bathrooms were original to 1929 and were in desperate need of renovation. We’re replacing 20 of the 50 cabins this year, with the ultimate goal of replacing all the housing.”

The new facilities not only will make camp life more comfortable for students and faculty during the usual midsummer sessions, but will also allow the camp to be used earlier and later in the season. As course offerings and student enrollment have burgeoned in recent years, faculty have considered offering courses May through September instead of only mid-June through mid-August. But the spartan living conditions in the old cabins were no match for Wyoming weather extremes.

“There’s an old saying in the Yellowstone area, which is not far from Camp Davis, that in this part of the country there are only two seasons: July and Winter,” said Blum, who is also the John D. MacArthur Professor of Geological Sciences and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “In the past, we’ve had freezing pipes and other problems due to lack of heat, but the new cabins are well heated and insulated and have water systems that won’t freeze.”

The new cabins, some named for memorable faculty mentors, former Camp Davis students, and family members of alumni, will be dedicated in a ceremony during the annual Alumni Getaway in August.

Also new this year is a course titled Sustainable and Fossil Energy: Options and Consequences, which Blum added to accommodate students’ interests.

“Wyoming is one of the most energy-intensive states,” he said. “It has enormous coal and gas resources, and it’s a perfect place for wind farms, photovoltaic generation and hydroelectric dams. Over the years, as I was teaching the geology and ecology courses, we would travel around the state and pass these facilities, and I noticed the students becoming more and more interested in issues and science related to energy. We were able to work little bits of energy content into some of the other courses, but taking a hint from the students, I decided to launch a new course that was entirely devoted to the topic.”

With partial funding from U-M’s Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute and the Office of the Provost, Camp Davis also is installing renewable energy systems that will serve as a demonstration project for students in the course.

The energy course is the latest addition to a curriculum that includes classes in the history, literature and ecology of the Rockies, in addition to introductory and advanced geology field courses. Hiking, camping and exploring are all part of the educational package, and the typical student to instructor ratio of 10:1 fosters a close-knit, collegial learning community.

Nestled in the mountains just south of Jackson Hole and tucked between the Hoback River and Bridger Teton National Forest, Camp Davis offers access to some of North America’s most scenic and interesting geological, ecological and historic sites. Mountain uplifts and deep erosion have exposed a variety of Earth structures and rocks of diverse age and origin. The dramatic landscape is host to a wide range of soils and plants, and the mountain weather and hydrology make for interesting research and discussion. The camp’s Wyoming location also makes it an ideal home base for studying energy resources and for excursions throughout the western United States.

Camp Davis