Celebrating 40 Years and Nearly 1,000 Wilderness and Civilization Program Alumni!

Wilderness and Civilation

The Institute's interdisciplinary Wilderness and Civilization Program has attracted and trained nearly 1,000 students since its inception in 1974. Many of the program's alumni have gone on to leadership roles in conservation organizations, wilderness education, land management agencies, and their communities. Learn more about the history of the Wilderness Institute and Wilderness and Civilization Program. Learn more about the faculty and staff of the current Wilderness and Civlization Program.  


Bill Borchers (1984 alum) and his daughter Kaydee Borchers (2014 alum) spend summer days on Flathead Lake fishing and going on service calls to fix boats.

For Bill Borchers the Wilderness and Civilization program was what introduced him to the University. Having taken some time off after high school Bill would have liked to continue working out at the marina which his family operated on Finley Point. While doing some research on programs at the University of Montana Bill discovered the Wilderness and Civilization Program and was happy to start his college education if it meant trekking through the wilderness and the Rocky Mountain Front. “The program is what tied me into the university system and into academics with direction.” Through the program Bill was able to take his experiences in the outdoors into his education and find greater meaning.

After completing the program Bill continued onto graduate from the University of Montana with a degree in Resource Conservation and later took on his family business Polson Marine Service on Flathead Lake.

The program cultivated and ethic and philosophy which he has taught his 3 daughters and which he carries with him in his daily work and life on the lake. Bill’s oldest daughter Kaydee has followed in his footsteps in many ways. Kaydee has spent time working with her dad fixing boats and going on hunting trips with him in the fall. Her interest in outdoor studies have guided her academic interest and led her to the pursuit of a degree in Parks, Tourism and Recreation Management and the Wilderness and Civilization Program. “Throughout my childhood my dad made effort to spend as much time with my sisters and me in the outdoors. He teaches us about ethical behavior and about living responsibly, he also teaches us girls to appreciate the resources we have and not to waste; I think this ethic has greatly shaped who I am for the better.”

The Wilderness and Civilization Program was a last minute choice for Kaydee, a friend mentioned it to her and she was sold after hearing how many days she would be able to spend in the field. After she applied, got accepted and prepared for the course she told her dad about it and learned that he had gone through the program as well. “The fact that I chose this program without knowing that my dad done it just goes to show how much we have in common as far as our interests go.” Kaydee hopes to continue to see the program carry on through multiple generations and to continue cultivating well rounded critical thinking individuals who will become leaders.

Zach Porter leans over the edge to get a better view during his fall trek

Zach came to Montana when he transferred from the University of Massachusetts.  He applied for the Wilderness and Civilization Program on exchange and liked the west so much that he ended up staying in Montana.

The Program has impacted his career by establishing strong connection within the professional community that he is involved with. “The Program introduced me to everyone I needed to know in conservation community and set me up to pursue a career in conservation. I am most grateful to the Wilderness Institute and Wilderness and Civ. program for connecting me.”

By far the most enjoyable aspects of the program for Zack were the lasting relationships that were created with his fellow ‘civers. “To this day it is the community that keeps bringing me back to the program. The conversations we had will stick with me and impact how I communicate today about conservation issues.” 

Zach is an advocate for the program and encourages students to join the program. His advice to all students in the program is to continue to build and maintain the relationships that are created. “To this day the program has fantastic leaders who are looking for passionate young people to get involved, to me that is not only how I found my field of work but it is one of the most compelling things about the program. Don’t hesitate apply now!”

Something he has learned that he would like to pass on to all students would be to pick a cause that you are passionate about and volunteer.  Nothing demonstrates to an employer your dedication and hard work as volunteer for a cause that you believe in.  

Illustration by Bethann Merkle

Bethann has been involved with W&C since she was a student in the program, primarily as a nature sketching/field journal instructor, speaking to several cohorts at orientations, and also as the co-founder of the student club/alumni group.

Bethann has been up to a variety of activities since she was in Wilderness and Civ including her work with the Watershed Education Network, outdoor education at a remote education ranch on MT's Rocky Mountain Front, co-directing the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project, and becoming an award-winning photojournalist, illustration journalist and communications consultant while living in French-speaking Quebec City. Bethann has recently moved back to the West, to Laramie, WY, where I'm building my science/sustainability illustration business and focusing heavily on teaching scientists and science teachers how to incorporate drawing into research, teaching and assessment. She is teaching workshops for the general public, with a focus on either lifestyle/travel journaling or nature journal keeping.

“ALL of the work I have done stems almost directly from W&C, because I went into W&C absolutely unaware of pretty much everything W&C discusses.”

Despite having grown up in Choteau, MT, Bethann had never hiked in the Bob Marshall Wilderness before the Fall Trek and knew very little about MT ecology.

“I'd never heard of food system issues, didn't know anything about "Wilderness" conservation, backpacking best practices, etc., etc., etc. W&C tore my naivety of the planet and diversity wide open, and expanded my sense of what's possible, important, and acceptable in epic ways.”

I transferred to UM from Montana Tech, enrolling in the Environmental Engineering program. In attempt to find a balance of fine arts and literature she applied to the W&C program. “I'm the first person on either side of my family to complete a college degree, so I had no idea that it was okay to change my mind. W&C gave me the confidence to pursue multiple academic interests simultaneously” Bethann wound up majoring in Environmental studies focusing on sustainable food and agriculture, with a minor in Studio Arts, the Wilderness Studies minor, and almost another minor in both Forestry and English Lit.

W&C required the keeping of a field journal, something she had never done before.

Through the field journal keeping process, I discovered I was one of very few in my cohort that enjoyed those assignments, and it wasn't until the river trip and our Environmental Ed lessons (wherein I talked about MT artists who explored nature through art) that I figured out why. I led a few basic drawing exercises as part of my lesson, and afterwards, my classmates said, "I wish you'd done that at the beginning of the year!" Turns out, their resistance to the field journal came largely from their lack of training and confidence related to drawing. And, that's what launched the 'crusade' I've been on for over a decade now - to show people how simple it is to get started drawing if you know the basics.

“To sum it up, if it weren't for W&C, I most likely would have never learned there was a way to meld my interest in science/nature and art into a satisfying past time and a multifaceted career.”

Wilderness Ranger Dylan McCoy (left) with volunteers

Since Dylan McCoy was a Wilderness and Civilization student he has grown to become Lead Wilderness Ranger for the Forest Service.

Out of McKenzie Bridge, Oregon Dylan is working for Willamette National Forest

At that time it was a full year program which added to his Recreation/ Resource Management Degree.

Dylan says that the Wilderness and Civilization program helped solidify his idea of becoming a Wilderness Ranger and made it something that was more achievable that it already was.

“Nicky Phear (the Wild and Civ lead at the time) helped me find the Wilderness Ranger Internship in the Sierras for summer 2006 that got me started on this career path.  Nicky recommended me for the internship that later turned into a seasonal job, and has lead into this permanent position with the Forest Service.”

According to Dylan W &C helped shape his perspective that has helped his achieve the position he now holds. With his work for the Forest Service Dylan works towards invoking meaningful change in the bureaucratic process he is involved in while continuing to learn and stay open-minded.

For Dylan the most compelling aspect of the program is the Wilderness part.  “I think it is important to look at the two extremes.” Dylan spoke to how the program was able to shed light on the contrast between wilderness and civilization. “Participants have a much greater chance of understanding and coping with this fact after having attended the course.”

Dylan also spoke to the importance the field trips, professors and informed guests had to the program.  Dylan said that summed up the variety within the course was most enjoyable. “The variety helped me form a gain a more well-rounded perspective of the world I live and participate in.

Favorite class was the one taught by Chris Filardi, can’t remember the name of it.  It wasn’t the class, it was him, learning from his extensive knowledge and being inspired by him.  People need some role models these days more than anything else, more than facts and Scantron tests.  Chris was a professor who had been there, had something to talk about from his own life adventure. 

My most memorable field trip was the one we went on to learn primitive skills.  How to start a fire with flint, build a sauna pit, a lean-to, many knife techniques, medicinal plant ID.  That overnighter taught me more about my connection to the real world than the rest of the program combined.

Dylan’s advice to a young alumni is to forget all of what is said about lack of funding or few job openings and go for it anyways.  “I can’t remember how many people told me that this career path wouldn’t work out for me, and here I am.  I would tell that young person that whatever they do, do it well, get good at it and be good at it.”  Dylan suggests to choose to forge your own path and not to listen to naysayers. ”If you do that, don’t make it a dead end road, blaze that path to something worthwhile, and spend your time in Wild and Civ and otherwise figuring out what that worthwhile thing is.”

Dylan’s words to prospective students who are considering the program are, “Do it, no matter what your major is.  In fact, especially do it if your major seemingly has nothing to do with Wild and Civ.  The average person has a lot to learn from studying these two extremes, life skills and perspectives that are desperately needed and rarely had, especially by those in positions of power.  Do it, and make the best of your time there.  Also, question everyone and everything.”

Dave Prather

Where do you live
St. Ignatius, MT

How did you first learn about Wilderness and Civ
School of Forestry flyer/met someone who was enrolled the previous year

What year did you do Wilderness and Civ? 

What is your degree and when did you receive it?  
Natural Resource Conservation – ‘03

What do you consider your greatest accomplishments? (Both personally and professionally)
Personally – convincing my wife to come wash carrots on the farm- and having her stay to start a family eventually.  Professionally- working with the farmers of Western Montana Growers Cooperative to improve the local food system in Montana

How did Wilderness and Civilization help you find your field of work?
Wilderness and Civ opened up a range of possibilities through networking and the fostering of ideas on how we as humans can interact with the landscape around us- in more than the obvious ways.

What do you see as the most compelling aspects of Wilderness and Civ? 
A year of intense focus on human/land/environment interactions may seem intimidating to some- but it was something I was desperately searching for and I was lucky to find it.

What do you enjoy most about your time as a Civer?
Field Trips!  In all seriousness- that a large portion of the program is devoted to actually getting out on the ground and experiencing some if the things we learn about in class- and then being “highly encouraged” to reflect on our experiences through field notes and journaling

What have been the biggest challenges in your career?
Maintaining a healthy balance between home life and work while helping to guide a growing business to success.

How has your W&C experience had an impact on your career?
Creating a Social Network that I still rely on.

Describe any significant relationships with fellow Civers. How did collaborating with other students contribute to your education?
Even 15 years later I still keep in touch with many of my fellow Civers- some will be lifelong friendships.  We do not inhabit the world in a vacuum- relationships matter- and a program such as Wilderness and Civ the relies on relationship building to succeed can do nothing by improve the chance for “success” after school- however one defines success.

What advice would you give to younger alumni or current students who aspire to follow a similar career path?
Find something that you won’t be bored doing for a long time- and figure out how to make a job of it.

What was your favorite class in the program? Fav/most memorable field trip?
Wow- hard to choose one- Roger Dunsmore of course is an inspiration- it’s actually hard to imagine the program without him.  Being on the Fall trek with Paul Alaback was also an incredible learning experience- such a wealth of Knowledge.  As for other field trips- visiting Tom and Melanie at Northwest connections was extremely useful to me as I was developing my understanding of how we could appreciate the land from both a preservationist perspective while still maintaining a utilitarian relationship with it.  

What would you say to prospective students who are considering the program? 
Do it!  You won’t regret it.