Teaching & Learning

Keeping Chill, Finding Challenge: Grace Larson on Learning Deep to Make a Difference

By Lael Gilbert |

Grace Larson

Don’t try and hurry her — Grace Larson prefers to set her own pace.

Six years after high school graduation, she is gearing up to graduate with an undergraduate degree in Recreation Resources Management from the Quinney College of Natural Resources, with strong experience in research under her belt and authorship on at least one academic publication. There are some who may move a bit faster than she does, academically speaking, but a measured and steady momentum during the college experience has given Larson time to find her footing and claim her academic strengths.

Not that she ever stands still. Just after high school, Larson landed a job at Brighton ski resort where she worked in customer service while earning general education credits at a school near her home. She appreciated the go-with-the-flow culture at the resort and the chance to connect with the high-elevation environment — but eventually decided that she wanted to find a way to blend the chill vibe she valued with a little sweat-trickling, muscle-straining exertion. So she joined a trail maintenance crew in the Colorado Conservation Corps.

Over three summer seasons, Larson’s crew spent eight-day stretches in the backcountry of the White River National Forest, sometimes trekking 20 miles at a time across trails aided only by alpacas. Since they were working in designated Wilderness, the team was allowed to use only hand tools; clearing brush, sawing fallen logs and building rock features for the trail completely with human power.

“You can learn a lot about simple mechanics like leverage and rollers when you have to shift thousands of pounds of downed log by hand,” she said.

During one of those intense stretches the miles of trail and raw backcountry beauty caused something to click in her mind: Larson realized she wanted to pursue a career supporting and managing wilderness areas. When the summer season ended, she transferred into QCNR’s Department of Environment and Society.

You wouldn’t have guessed, based on Larson’s chill vibe, that an important touchpoint in her academic career would happen during a course on ecological economics. But the frank, interactive discussions led by Chris Lant spurred a transformative perspective on her thinking about the management of natural resources.

“The idea that natural resources are just a piece of the whole economy was turned on its head in that class — I realized that the whole economy is really just a subset of a global natural resource system,” she said. “When you start with that idea as your foundation, your perspective really changes.”

She was fascinated to explore the vast, embedded social systems that operate completely under the radar of most ski bums and backcountry trekkers, and she wanted to dive deeper into similar topics. She approached Lant about the possibility of participating in undergraduate research. Larson joined a team exploring “human appropriation of net primary production” — a metric comparable to carbon footprint that calculates how much of earth’s total biomass humans claim for themselves through harvest of things like food, fiber and wood products.

Understanding the nuance of complex systems like these, she realized, gave her access to the engine under the social hood, so to speak. It allowed her to be more influential in issues that really mattered to her — equitable access to natural resources for marginalized groups and correcting cultural disparities in how recreation systems are organized. It’s on those topics that she eventually wants to focus her career.

But she isn’t quite ready to step off the trail just yet. After graduation, Larson will join a wilderness fire crew based out of Oregon. She says she’s ready to put her muscle behind her efforts for a few more seasons and will eventually seek an effective place to expand her career in the U.S. Forest Service.


Lael Gilbert
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources


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