Moab Happenings Archive
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Canyonlands Field Institute: A Mission of Stewardship
By Linda Schmidt

Officially organized in 1984, CFI was founded upon an enduring mission. One of the two founders, Karla VanderZanden, was a BLM river ranger with a degree in outdoor education. She had a desire to start something for the public that included the river, camping, and education. Through mutual friends, she hooked up with Robin Wilson, the wife of Bates Wilson, the man known as the father of Canyonlands NP. Robin shared both her deceased husband’s great love for the wilderness and Karla’s desire to awaken this love in others through outdoor experiences. With complementary skills and strong resolve, Karla and Robin brought Canyonlands Field Institute into being. Robin’s words: “Let the land speak for itself; help people to understand the language,” are the basis of its mission.

As these two women worked their way through the complexities of fund raising, membership, and grant writing, they initially ran one-day adult seminars focusing on various topics such as geology and wildflowers. Establishing a strong support base through this work, in the early 1990’s they made the decision to shift their focus to youth. Today, CFI continues to offer excellent programs for both adults and families, but impacting youth has become their primary focus as a non-profit organization.

These early years in the 1990’s were critical for the organization. In 1990, they moved to their current facilities on South Highway 191. On May 3,1991, co-founder Robin Wilson died peacefully at home after a bout with cancer. And in 1992, CFI acquired river permits that originally were held by the Humpback Chub River Company. They had been purchased by Steve Arrowsmith one month before his death, and then transferred to the Institute, making their excellent river activities possible.
Schools began to engage in CFI events with very successful results. For years now, entire classes have participated in river trips as well as hiking and camping in Moab’s fantastic terrain. One-day, over-night, and multi-day programs are available. The focus is as fantastic as the terrain: turning possibly apathetic youngsters into stewards of the land!

Brennan Patrick Gillis, director of marketing and communications, became involved with CFI through the organization’s companion mission, professional development internship (more on this below). He explains that developing stewardship in youth utilizes the establishment of emotional connections. All activities have an educational focus that promotes observing and understanding. It may involve writing or producing artwork or speaking, activities that enable a person to connect with what is being seen and comprehended. The sequential order of observation, understanding, and connection may vary, but together these create an emotional bond with the object. The end result—caring. This caring for the rivers, the rocks and soil, the plants and animals, and archaeological treasures leads to action; that action is stewardship.

CFI’s internship, or apprenticeship, for young adults (21 or older) cultivates care for the land and for other people through guide training at a professional level. River guiding requires many complex skills beyond boating that include communication, teaching, practicing real first aid, setting up camps, cooking and clean-up, and rescue techniques. Any young adult who is serious about becoming a successful guide will profit immensely from this rigorous training. And such a guide becomes a steward who is able to pass on love for the great outdoors.

Though strongly affected by the school closures in 2020, CFI proved its resiliency. Motivated by the Institute’s mission, its own stewards—a fine staff, friends, and donors—enabled it to survive and thrive again this year. This dictionary definition of resiliency fits perfectly: “the ability of a system or organization to respond to or recover readily from a crisis, or a disruptive process.” Response and recovery are hard work, but schools are again participating in CFI adventures. Summer camps and guide training are now in progress. And, with the current upsurge of interest in outdoor activities, CFI’s mission puts it in a strong position to lead in teaching visitor respect and care for the land, promoting mental, emotional and physical health.

Want to participate? Check out for information on exciting custom family trips. Booking with CFI, not only will you enjoy a rich, memorable experience, but you will be underwriting programs for children! Canyonlands Field Institute, 1320 South Highway 191, PO Box 68, Moab UT 84532. Phone 800-860-5262 or 435-259-7750.

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