On Saturday afternoon, Sept. 29, Pershing spent a few hours at the university’s Rio Mesa Center, a 400-acre research field station located about 40 miles northeast of Moab, along the Dolores River in Grand County. He met with university students and U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials in celebrating the Rio Mesa center’s fifth anniversary.
Pershing joined BLM state director Juan Palma in dedicating a second BLM-funded native plant demonstration garden at the field station. The research gardens are part of a multi-year joint research effort by the U. of U. and the BLM to study the biological diversity of plants native to the Colorado Plateau.
Pershing, a longtime University of Utah faculty member and administrator, took the helm as the university’s 15th president in March of this year. He said the visit to southeastern Utah was the final planned stop in a series of visits this year billed as the “Great Red Road Trip.”
Pershing said his travels over the summer have taken him to a variety of places, including eight miles underground (a coal mine near Salina), on a drilling platform near Vernal, and even a pig farm. His visits have included trips to southwestern and central Utah in late June, northern Utah in July, Tooele County in August, and Utah County in early September.
Following Saturday’s visit to the research center, Pershing, accompanied by his wife Sandi and a small entourage of staffers, stopped in Moab for a dinner meeting with local civic and education officials.
“Our effort is to reach out to students all over the state,” Pershing said. “We want students in rural Utah to feel that the [university] is a friendly place.”
Pershing said although the students at the Rio Mesa Center, for example, live in tents and are essentially “off the grid,” they are engaged in highly specialized scientific studies. Adapting to diverse learning environments and developing wide-ranging technological skills are essential for today’s higher-education students, he said.
The University of Utah’s offerings at Rio Mesa over the past few years have included courses in entomology, plant ecology, geology, architectural planning, civil engineering, and even landscape painting. The field station has also conducted several outreach programs, including workshops and field trips for youth and teachers.
“Until this summer, Rio Mesa was a premier outdoor research location with limited facilities,” Zach Lundeen, manager of the field station, said in a prepared statement. “As people have learned about the environment and programs here, user days have grown nearly 25 percent over the past year. The addition of new facilities on site will further expand the center’s attractiveness for visitors, including those involved in a variety of valuable research activities.”
“Rio Mesa presents an ideal environment for study and education,” said Wayne Padgett of the BLM’s Colorado Plateau Native Plant Program. “One of our major goals in the native plants program is to provide the knowledge and technology required for restoring diverse native plant communities across the Colorado Plateau. We have created this partnership to do vital research, but also to encourage students of all ages to visit the Rio Mesa Center to experience the entire ecosystem.”
Plans to further expand the Rio Mesa Center and its programs are already in the works, including a planned expansion of the research gardens, the addition of a greenhouse, and the construction of a field house with classrooms, university officials said.