Dr. Ryan Atwell Joins MEM Faculty, Coldharbour Sustainable Living Center

Dr. Ryan C. Atwell
With the hiring of Dr. Ryan C. Atwell, Western’s new Master in Environmental Management program has added its sixth, new instructor, and the Gunnison Valley’s nascent Coldharbour Sustainable Living Center has its first executive director.

“Dr. Atwell is a rare talent,” says Dr. John Hausdoerffer, director of the MEM program, set to welcome its first students this summer. “He is an environmental educator with systemic thinking concerning local and national communities and resources.”

The Gunnison Valley Housing Foundation has committed $150,000 over four years to help Coldharbour get up and running, with research, experiments and demonstrations in cold-climate, sustainable living. Western will match that figure to fund Atwell’s halftime teaching position in the MEM program.

Atwell – a former policy fellow with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Office of Environmental Markets and currently a contractor with Teton Science Schools in Kelly, Wyo. – says he foresees great opportunities at Coldharbour.

“This position is a really perfect fit for my interests,” Atwell says, “because it links cutting-edge work in the environmental sciences with on-the-ground, real-world applications that benefit the local community.”

Atwell has a diverse educational background that includes a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and Religion from Hope College in Holland, Mich.; graduate diplomas in Theology from Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, and from a Professional Residency in Environmental Education at the Teton Science School; along with his Doctor of Philosophy degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Iowa State University. He is also enrolled at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., where he is a candidate for a Master of Arts degree in Theology.

His research and contract work are equally diverse, involving ornithology and songbird banding, assessments of educational outcomes in scientific and ecological literacy, strategic planning for ecosystem assessments, social innovation related to environmental issues, land-use assessments, environmental ethics and religion, how changes in riparian systems affect cottonwood trees, and even coaching cross-country skiers.

“I grew up in a small, Iowa farm town. And much of my work has involved partnering with farmers and ranchers,” Atwell says. “I really look forward to working with agricultural producers in the Gunnison Valley and on the Western Slope.”

Lucy Waldo, president of Coldharbour’s board, explains that Atwell will split his time between managing the Sustainable Living Center and teaching with Western’s new MEM program. Coldharbour’s official incorporation as a non-profit is still pending. But the 333-acre ranch along Tomichi Creek, about 7 miles east of Gunnison, is set to become a unique center for testing and demonstrating different ways to manage everything from riparian areas along the creek to pastures, renewable energy resources, vegetable gardening and construction with locally available materials.

“We want to offer a space for students to try new building designs with natural materials,” Waldo says. “We also plan to renovate the beautiful stone home and offer opportunities for community gatherings like storytelling around the campfire.”

Ralph “Butch” Clark and his wife, Judy, owned the Coldharbour ranch, which they named for a farm where they had lived in southern England. The Clarks effectively donated the ranch through a trust, allowing creation of the Coldharbour center. In addition, the Clarks have donated $100,000 through the Western State Foundation to help endow five graduate fellowships for the MEM program, for four years, after which the program will continue to fund the Clark Fellowships. In January, the Clarks received an “Angel Investor” award from Western.

“There’s a lot to be learned,” Butch Clark says. “I think it’s a great teaching situation.”

He talks of experimenting with better irrigation and flood management to encourage deeper, more drought-tolerant roots from grasses and shrubs. And he talks of recycling wastewater more aggressively, as have several American cities in fast-growing, drought-prone areas.

“It’s a big challenge to manage your water within your community, and make people happy with toilet to tap,” he says.

But all this is just a hint of the synergies and innovations envisioned for the Gunnison community, Coldharbour, Western’s Environment & Sustainability and MEM programs. The five other, new MEM instructors, announced in March, include:

  • Dr. Abel Chavez, who comes to Western from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.
  • Dr. Corrie Knapp, who has experience researching climate-adaptation for the Gunnison Basin and was previously the farm co-manager and program coordinator for Denver Urban Gardens.
  • Dr. Jessica Young, a former Western provost who has worked in conservation biology for the past two decades, including joining research that resulted in recognition of the Gunnison sage grouse as a new species
  • Dr. Tom Grant, research director for the Mountain Studies Institute in Silverton.
  • Sally Thode, who for the past 23 years has focused on public lands management, most recently leading the Bureau of Land Management’s Gunnison office, where she will remain while teaching part time in the MEM program.
  • Kate Clark is currently finishing her PhD in Environmental Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she focuses on environmental movements. 

Hausdoerffer notes the MEM program has doubled its enrollment projections and partnering with Coldharbour offers incredible possibilities, both for the Gunnison area and the students who will take what they learn to other communities around the world.

“Dr. Atwell’s diverse background provides a unique opportunity for Western and Coldharbour to each become a hub of social and ecological problem solving for many Gunnison residents, for communities across the West and for cold climates around the world,” he says.


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Friday, May 2, 2014 - 4:30pm