Long Creek: Bringing Science Home

Long CreekA-1It is almost dawn in one of Oregon’s tiniest towns. Long Creek is 40 miles from anywhere. There is a Post Office, a school with 34 students (counting foreign boarding students, who must think they have been sent to the moon) and a watershed council office for the North Fork of the John Day River. Also a restaurant. And three churches. This is rural, conservative, Grant County, Oregon at its finest.
Last night I gave a talk about Oregon’s Oligocene calderas to pretty much the entire town. There’s not much to do on a Friday evening in Long Creek, and so when anyone comes to town to talk about anything, it’s a grand social event. The Watershed Council invited me. They provided a pot-luck dinner, and a raffle to win several Patagonia jackets, all donated to the watershed, which then donated to the Historical Society to help pay for some of the fixin’s.
Why drive a total of six hours and 300 miles to talk to 50 or so ranchers, loggers, rock-hounds, teachers, and an assortment of elderly ladies and kids about the rocks that rim their valley? Because these are people who incorporate the backcountry, the forests and grasslands, rivers and meadows, and all their wild inhabitants into the intimate fabrics of their lives. Because this generally conservative community represents the soft underbelly of resistance to science, global warming, and a host of other misperceptions based upon misinformation and fear. And because few of the residents of Long Creek have ever met, let-alone know, trust, and have shared meat-loaf, apple pie, and conversation, with a scientist.
In 2005, journalist Chris Mooney suggested that conservatives have become much less trusting of science from the 1970s to the present. This observation was tested—and confirmed — in subsequent studies, most notably by Gordon Gachet (2012). He noted: “….conservatives were far more likely to define science as knowledge that should conform to common sense and religious tradition.” He also noted that conservative audiences are under-served by scientific presentations.
So, what better place than Long creek, in Grant County, to connect landscape and community, as well as provide a portrait of how new discoveries are made, and why they matter to people in eastern Oregon?
Long Creek antelope-x1For a presentation, I chose the story of the discovery of the Crooked River caldera. Until 2005, geologists considered Smith Rock, Powell Butte, and other Central Oregon landmarks as separate volcanic peaks. But then, when a real estate developer could not find adequate water, and state geologists were called in to solve the problem, they found that the structures of a giant, Yellowstone-sized caldera, 29 million years in age, restricted ground water flow—and also connected the multiple, disparate peaks into a single 25-mile-wide supervolcano. Furthermore, there are indications that Tower Mountain, not far from Long Creek, is (or was) a very similar creature that might exert control over more local ground water.
In the 24-slide, 25 minute presentation, there was not a graph to be found. Just nice photographs and (I hope) engaging information, and plenty of good questions at the end. I left with the warm thank-you-s and firm handshakes of 50 new friends, a memory of some of the best questions I’ve been asked, and the tastiest meatloaf and apple pie in memory.
As academic scientists, we too often neglect this kind of American-roots experience. On resumes, a presentation to the American Geophysical Union glistens more brightly than a talk at the Long Creek Community Hall.
N Fork JD River-1But it shouldn’t. After all, the people who live in Long Creek are among those who have funded this research. They are more directly its beneficiaries than anyone at AGU. And they should be counted at least as equals in importance to learn about what they have paid for, and how science fits into their daily lives.
NSF has a requirement now for providing public outreach for most funded projects. Too often (but certainly, not always) this amounts to either a presentation in the school, or a graph and statistic-rich, jargon-laced, talk presented at the investigators behest, or perhaps a press release.
Science needs to refocus at least some of its outreach efforts. After all, loggers, ranchers, and urban and rural conservatives of all stripes are its bread and butter. And its meat-loaf and apple pie, too.