In an office tucked away in a corner of Arntzen Hall’s second floor, Western environmental studies professor John Miles sits in his rolling office chair. He is flanked on one side by his desk and computer and on the other by a completely full, floor-to-ceiling bookshelf where one might see titles like, “Ecological Politics,” “These American Lands” and “Mind and Nature.”
Originally from New Hampshire, Miles was drawn to the western wilderness by a love of the outdoors.
“I always had this dream of coming out to the West,” he said.
So after completing a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Dartmouth College, Miles made his way to the University of Oregon, where he earned a master’s in recreation and park management.
Miles’ original plan was to pursue a master’s degree in archaeology, but after a year in that program, he decided to switch to recreation and parks management.
He said he was attracted to that program because of his involvement with the outdoors. In his time at the University of Oregon, he helped create the university’s outdoor center and was also involved with the campus chapter of the Sierra Club.
Miles actually met legendary environmentalist David Brower, who was executive director of the Sierra Club from 1952 to 1969, twice during his collegiate career. The first encounter was in 1965, during Miles’ senior year at Dartmouth, when Brower came to talk to the students about national parks and the dangers to them from building dams, specifically in the Grand Canyon.
After the talk, Miles asked Brower if they could really build dams that would flood the Grand Canyon, and Brower handed him a Sierra Club membership card.
The second time they met was at one of the University of Oregon chapter meetings, where Brower had come to talk about the North Cascades, an issue already important to Miles.
While at Dartmouth, Miles wrote letters to campaign for the creation of a North Cascades National Park. He said he didn’t even know where the North Cascades were when he started writing the letters. So, when he finally landed in Bellingham after following a job opportunity to Western, he had already been involved in the region without even knowing it.
The year he came to Western, 1968, was the year that North Cascades National Park was established. Miles said he was very interested in seeing how the park was going to be developed, and that interest in the North Cascades has remained strong.
“I’m sort of North Cascades focused,” Miles said.
He continues to write about the region, and the students in his environmental education master’s program spend a good deal of their time in the mountains at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center.
Miles uses his knowledge of the North Cascades and his experiences of travelling in them as a jumping-off point to discuss wider issues confronting all of our national parks.
His most recent book, “Playground or Preserve: The Story of Wilderness in National Parks,” focuses on how the idea of wilderness influences national parks. Two other publications in the works, a reader about the history of the North Cascades region and a collection of essays about his experiences in the region, both deal with the way parks are changing due to things like climate change and management practices.
“I’m especially looking at how relevant wilderness is to maintaining the national park system that people want and need,” he said.
When Miles first came to Western, he was the assistant director of Student Activities. He didn’t switch over to academics until Huxley College of the Environment was started in 1970.
“Huxley College popped up and it turned out to be the perfect place for me,” he said.
In his 43 years at Western, Miles said he has been involved in almost every level of Huxley. He has been an instructor, a department chair and the dean, and now he runs the environmental education graduate program.
When asked why he thinks environmental education programs are important, Miles said one of the problems with the modern world is that we don’t understand the natural world, which we rely on for food and countless other services.
He said the best outcome would be to educate people enough so that they choose sustainability on their own, instead of other institutions having to enforce constraints.
Outside of Huxley, Miles was the driving force behind the creation of Western’s varsity soccer program, and he helped to create what is now the Associated Students Outdoor Center.
Miles said he is the last remaining faculty member who was at the original Huxley.
“I feel blessed to have been here,” he said.