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Two students to lead sustainability bus tour this summer

May 16, 2007

Two students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, along with 11 other students and recent graduates from around the country, are going to live on a bus this summer.

But the trip is far from a typical college summer road trip, as this bus is the first-ever "green-certified" motor coach and is equipped with full Internet access, computer workstations, video cameras and a media center and is powered by biodiesel fuel.

The bus tour is in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Morris K. Udall Foundation, an organization established by Congress to honor the legacy of former U.S. Rep. Morris K. Udall, who championed environmental preservation issues, Native American health and tribal public policy. The 13 students, including Julie Curti and Martina Gast, are Udall Scholars, having received merit-based scholarships and fellowships for their study of the environment and Native American policy in the United States.

"I am looking forward to seeing what's out there, because I've studied a lot of these issues, I've worked on them, but I'm going to see so much diversity of what environmentalism and sustainability mean," says Curti, a UW–Madison student from Plover, Wis., and a sustainable cities events co-coordinator for the bus tour.

The students depart from Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, June 12, after a launch that will feature Congressional speakers from both major political parties. Throughout the bus tour, the students will stop at 32 different places, including cities, colleges and universities, tribal reservations and national parks. The students will participate in 20 public-service projects along the way.

As the students travel between stops on the bus tour, they will be writing on a collective blog about their experience, creating video documentaries and coordinating media at future stops.

"One of our goals is to make the bus tour carbon-neutral," says Curti. "Of course, we will give off carbon emissions, but through carbon offsetting it is possible. For example, we will be purchasing offsets for the entire tour through Native Energy, a Native American-owned carbon-offset company."

One of the projects along the tour will be with Working Bikes in Chicago, a local nonprofit cooperative that diverts waste from landfills by rebuilding and shipping used bicycles to places in need, including the Chicago area, the Gulf Coast, Ghana, Tanzania, Nicaragua and Peru.

Another project will be a bioremediation effort in New Orleans, where the group is aiding a project created by a Udall alumni, called Replant New Orleans. "We're going to work with plants that suck toxins out of the soil – it's a more natural way to help heal the earth after the Hurricane Katrina disaster," says Curti.

Because the 13 students that organized each stop on the bus tour live around the country, Curti describes the efforts to coordinate the stops as "interesting" so far and is enthusiastic about the possibilities and experiences the group will encounter.

"No other tour has tried to tackle so many issues before, so we don't know exactly what is going to happen at the different stops. It'll be exciting to see how it turns out."

Gast, a tribal events co-coordinator and the only student on the bus who is Native American, organized several stops at Native American reservations in Ithaca, N.Y.; Grand Ronde, Ore.; Lawrence, Kan.; and Oklahoma City. In Grande Ronde, the local tribe is opening a campground and will have the groundbreaking ceremony in coordination with bus tour so the students can attend and aid the campground in the development of environmentally sustainable practices.

"I hope to grow from this internship," says Gast, a junior from Chilton, Wis. "It will provide a good foundation for working with tribal people in the future." Gast intends to pursue federal indigenous law after graduation, because "there aren't many Native people working for the rights of Native people."

Curti says that the purpose of the bus tour echoes that sentiment. "The lack of focus on diversity has been an ongoing problem in the environmental movement. And environmental health issues disproportionately affect local minority communities. There's been a movement in the past years to combine these efforts and realize that issues on a national level connect to individual communities.

"Too often, with environmental issues, people focus on negatives, like global warming, but this is a tour that really wants to highlight positive efforts that can be made," adds Curti.

Gast agrees: "It's rewarding to know that you're a part of the [Udall] Foundation and that you can make a positive difference."

And the reason why UW–Madison has the highest number of participants in the tour? Curti believes that "it could have something to do with the fact that we go to an institution in such a progressive state that has a great interest in social justice and environmental issues."