Ben small face portraitI began my career interning for the Pacific Northwest office of the Sierra Club in the late 1960’s, working on legislative designation of North Cascades National Park and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and on Hells Canyon hydroelectric dam issues. My Oberlin College thesis looked at the controversy over mining in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

On staff of the new environmental studies program at UC-Santa Cruz 1970-75, I participated in defining curriculum, advised students, and initiated student field studies. For Santa Cruz, I led undergraduate teams researching park values in Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains and organized similar projects for Lake Clark and Southeast Alaska and in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Later, I returned to Santa Cruz to teach classes in environmental policy and in Alaska environmental issues.

My masters thesis for the UC-Berkeley department of landscape architecture environmental planning program compared legislative proposals for management of Wrangell-St. Elias.

Marci & Ben skiing Chitistone Canyon 3-1976 photo by Sally cropped
Marci & Ben skiing up the Chitistone Canyon from their home at Spuce Point, 1976

Through the winter of 1975-76, My wife Marci Thurston and I lived in a one-room wilderness cabin at the entrance to the Chitistone Canyon in the Wrangells, heating with firewood cut from the forest with hand tools, traveling on skis, without electricity, phone, radio, or a clock.

During congressional deliberation leading to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, I served on the Alaska governor’s planning and policy staff, as consultant to the Joint Federal-State Land Use Planning Commission for Alaska, as Alaska representative for Friends of the Earth, and on the staff of the coalition of environmental groups advocating for the legislation in Washington, D.C., where I specialized in mining and Wrangell Mountains issues.

Sweet Creek home
Home at Sweet Creek

Returning to the Wrangells near McCarthy, Marci and I first traded building a new log cabin in exchange for living in a completed one. Then we designed our own place at Sweet Creek near Kennecott, a few miles from McCarthy, with solar greenhouse and organic gardens, where our two daughters home schooled and lived much of their childhood.

My Union Institute doctoral dissertation explored relationships between the contemplative and activist life in the context of the American wilderness. It is in the form of a novel, accompanied by footnotes and a context essay covering the relevant literature. Fireweed Press subsequently published the novel, Alaska Dragon, in 1991.

I have practiced Buddhist meditation at Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat center in France and yoga with several U.S. teachers. I have trained in the Japanese martial art of Aikido since 1994.

With a home at McCarthy-Kennecott in the middle of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, I have been and remain engaged with local policy issues and controversies. Many of these involve decisions about motorized access to areas isolated from vehicle traffic, as well as park planning & management.

My work on transportation and land use planning has also included consulting for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy on highway development and urban sprawl in the Czech Republic and Poland. I taught at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel and helped with the launch of this program for Jewish, Arab and international students during its first semester.

College field program group at the Old Hardware Store in McCarthy
College field program group at the Wrangell Mountains Center  in McCarthy

In 1983, Marci, colleagues and I initiated a two-month college environmental field studies program based in McCarthy and including extensive wilderness travel in the Wrangell Mountains. Administered through Wildlands Studies, enrolling students from around the country, it has been affiliated with San Francisco State University, UC-Santa Barbara, and now Cal State-Monterey Bay. The program is entering its 31st season. Leadership has passed to successive generations of faculty; I still teach with the program. Housed at the National Historic Register “Old Hardware Store” building in McCarthy, it led to creation of The Wrangell Mountains Center, which now also supports many additional programs in the arts, humanities and sciences in the Wrangell Mountains.

In 2003, Evergreen State College faculty Ted Whitesell invited me to co-teach a three-quarter, full-time set of courses, in which undergraduates researched and wrote a book on the wilderness preservation movement in Washington State. Ted subsequently edited the student manuscript for publication by Mountaineers Press as Defending Wild Washington, A Citizen’s Action Guide. I returned to Evergreen to co-teach a one-quarter program in policy advocacy in 2010 and am presently resource faculty for the college.

My current projects include a book manuscript and curriculum on the natural history of Wrangell-St. Elias, a book and curriculum on strategic policy advocacy co-authored with Vanderbilt Law School faculty Roger Conner, and work on pain, addiction and chronic disease issues with Kimber Rotchford, M.D.

3 thoughts on “Biography”

  1. Hi Ben, Chuck Kent here, retired from EPA and living in Alexandria, VA. Just found some B&W negatives from your first Wrangell Mountain Expedition. Wondering if you would like to have them?

    1. Chuck, glad to hear from you! I’m in Port Townsend, Washington, now, — go back and forth between here and McCarthy in the Wrangells, still living both places. Yes, very much would like to see those negatives. They might be interesting now partly for their historic value, of the place at that time. Address is 825 V Street, Port Townsend, WA 98368. Thanks!

  2. Ben- I just came across your biography when looking up Dick Cooley’s life story. Congratulations on your ongoing career in Alaska and elsewhere. I recall early on the beginning of the Wrangell Mts. project where one of my students, Lisa Shon, went for the summer, returned and never left. This fall marks my 54th year at UCSC and there are only 2 faculty here left from before 1970, one guy from literature… but I am still enjoying what I do and no plans for retirement… ES and other the campus have come a long way from the early days of the program. Best regards – Gary Griggs

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An ongoing inquiry into change, stability and connecton, by Ben Shaine

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