Seeing the Forest for the Trees - Spring 2006 Ivy Leaf Magazine

Ivy Leaf - Spring 2006

Seeing the Forest for the Trees


Donna Lybecker trekked from the West to Central Pennsylvania for a new experience and a job at Penn State Altoona. She found the trees and mountains of the Altoona region to be very different from the big open plains of her native Colorado. Yet she could not turn away from the opportunity that Penn State Altoona gave her: to teach both her passion for Latin American politics and for the environment.

For Lybecker, now in her second year as a political science and environmental studies professor at the college, Penn State Altoona afforded her the best academic opportunity after completing her doctoral degree. Reflects Lybecker, "One of my favorite things about Penn State Altoona is the fact that the environmental studies program is multi-disciplinary. I could be in both the political science department and the environmental studies department. It brought together two of the things I love the most. A lot of other universities don't have those opportunities."

Lybecker's professional interests can be traced to her parents' influence. An agricultural economist, Lybecker's father taught at Colorado State University and her parents lived in Mexico while her father completed his doctoral dissertation. States Lybecker, "I grew up knowing the wonders of Mexico; I think that's the source of my interest in Latin America."

Throughout college and graduate school, her focus on Latin America and the environment never wavered. However, she did not focus specifically on political science until her master's degree. Originally envisioning a career with the government or an NGO (non-governmental organization), Lybecker discovered a passion for the academic world while working on her master's degree. "By the time I decided to go for my Ph.D., I knew that I would truly like to teach."

But before landing her job with Penn State Altoona, Lybecker spent a year working with the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, gaining some of the real-world experience that she now brings to her classroom.

"The Forest Service was set up to protect not only forest resources but also watersheds," explains Lybecker. She notes that many Pennsylvanians may not be very familiar with the function of the Forest Service, as there is only one National Forest in the state. The Pennsylvania State Game Lands serves a similar role to the Forest Service. Notes Lybecker, "Pennsylvania is really lucky because they have their own state gamelands that do what Forest Service land does elsewhere."


Finding Common Ground

Lybecker's charge was to look at different National Forests and Grasslands across the country and talk to the stakeholders in these lands—the skiers, hikers, bird watchers, fishermen, hunters, four-wheelers, snowmobilers, local government officials, water conservation districts, and anyone who had an interest in the land—to come up with ideas as to how the government could better manage these natural resources.

"A lot of what I was doing was getting the big picture of what's going on in this country," states Lybecker. "I would talk to an environmentalist one afternoon and the next morning talk to the four-wheelers. Although the two groups at times take opposing sides to an issue, I could understand both of their perspectives. And I found that a lot of these opposing groups have similar goals; it's just that with environmental issues, they don't always see their connection."

To illustrate her point, Lybecker recalls her work with ranchers in Wyoming and Montana. "Ranchers and environmentalists traditionally have not gotten along. They disagree about how the land should be used," she states. "While the ranchers want to run a certain number of head of cattle on the land, the environmentalists respond that too many head are hurting the land."

"But as we see more mining, drilling, and other development, you're seeing ranchers and environmentalists recognizing that they have the same goal of protecting an area and keeping it open space instead of allowing it to be developed. Even thought they come from opposing sides of some issues, in a lot of ways, their ultimate goal is the same. So now they are starting to work together."


Learning to Think

In the classroom, Lybecker's ultimate goal is "to teach my students to think. It's really important for every person to question why they hold the beliefs that they do; I don't want students to react because that's what they've always heard, I want them to react because they have consciously made a decision about where they stand on an issue."

She uses her education and experiences to help students find shared goals between seemingly opposing viewpoints and challenges them to question traditional notions. "Traditionally, we've been told that economics and environmental conservation don't agree. I think that's incorrect. I think that they can work together," she states. She offers the example of successful, environmentally-friendly companies like Ben & Jerry's and Burt's Bees, as well as hybrid cars and the growing organic foods market.

And she urges her students to challenge the traditional notion that economic development is all good. "Yes, jobs are good; and jobs often come with development. But it needs to done in a smart way and we need to talk about what kind of development we want."

"Environmentalists are often stereotyped as wanting to save the tree frog and not caring about jobs. I hope to teach my students that it is possible to care about the environment and promote the economy. It just may require a different way of looking at things." —Donna Lybecker