"The core of my teaching philosophy is to get folks critically analyzing stuff, whether it is in the classroom or outside the classroom."

Can conservation and development co-exist?

That basic question, with all of its complex nuances, lies at the core of Peter Wilshusen's research. The associate professor of environmental studies has worked throughout Latin America, but for the past decade has focused on nine communities on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. The dry tropical forests managed by these communities lie between the Sian Ka'an and the Calakmul Biosphere Reserves, forming critical corridors for jaguars and other threatened and endangered species to move between the two protected areas. The forests also grow mahogany, a much-desired wood logged for the international market.

As a social scientist, Wilshusen studies how well local community forestry associations are meeting economic, social and ecological goals for the land in the context of larger political reforms. In the late 1980s, Mexico started to shift away from a system of community-based management toward the globally popular neo-liberal policies favoring private ownership. Despite the complexity of the situation and the potentially competing demands, Wilshusen says, overall, conservation and development both appear to be succeeding. "In many cases, community-run initiatives do a fairly good job under difficult circumstances at maintaining forest cover while also making a living," he says.

Together with Professor of Geology Craig Kochel, Wilshusen has co-directed the Bucknell University Environmental Center for its first four years. Faculty, students and staff involved in the center are working on everything from researching the cultural history of the Susquehanna Valley to installing solar power demonstration projects. "The role I took on was acting as the hub of the wheel," Wilshusen says.

He helped the center grow from being a good idea to becoming the home of three major initiatives that have attracted substantial grant support, and spearheaded the negotiations for an Environmental Connections component in the new College of Arts and Sciences curriculum. The Center "is a way to channel all that good energy," he says. "It was there before but kind of diffused because there wasn't a platform for people to plug into."

As a teacher, Wilshusen has two goals: get students outdoors and make them think. Whether students are researching climate change in "Introduction to Environmental Studies" or redesigning their hometowns in "Environmental Planning," they can expect to challenge their preconceptions and dig deeper into issues they may have only considered superficially before. "The core of my teaching philosophy," Wilshusen says, "is to get folks critically analyzing stuff, whether it is in the classroom or outside the classroom."

Posted Sept. 9, 2009

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