Three images: two people smiling outside, a B&W photo of a group of people, and a large group of graduates outside

Choosing their path, making an impact

Rausser College’s Conservation and Resource Studies program celebrates 50 years of interdisciplinary, student-led scholarship

A vintage photo of UC Berkeley graduates

Conservation of Natural Resources graduates with program co-founder Arnold Schultz in 1977. Image courtesy of Lauran Hawker. Banner left and right: CRS Alternative Graduation in 2019. Photos by Brittany Hosea-Small. Middle: Residents and friends of the Greenhouse, where CNR students hosted classes and demonstrated ecological living in the ’70s. Photo by Steven Blau.

It was the early 1970s—half a century ago. Antiwar protests were common. Unmarried couples got the right to use contraceptives. Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The Beatles broke up. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the BART system was taking its first passengers. The Free Speech Movement and hippie culture were in full swing.

The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were beginning to address pollution around the country, the Environmental Protection Agency was founded, and there was an awakening consciousness about the importance of protecting the earth. On the Berkeley campus, a group of faculty and students wanted to live ecologically and devote their careers to helping the environment. It was in this setting that the Conservation of Natural Resources (CNR) major was born.

A true collaboration between faculty and students, the new program took an interdisciplinary approach to environmental problems, with the goal of delivering the best solutions for nature and humanity. Flexibility was a core ethos: each student designed their individual focus area and selected courses, with faculty mentorship, from departments across the University. Many students earned credit for practical experiences including fieldwork, internships, and community involvement—activities that were seen as essential to making connections between theory and practice and choosing future careers. Those involved in the program also valued creating a community and a democracy, where students, faculty, and staff worked cooperatively and participated jointly in decisions.

“The [program] offers students the opportunity to receive an interdisciplinary education,” wrote U.S. Congressman Ronald Dellums (MSW ’62 Social Welfare), in a 1981 letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman. “In addition, its course of study is one which is vital to the future of our society.” The program has gone through changes over the years, including a name change to Conservation and Resource Studies (CRS). And though Berkeley and the world may look very different from those early years, the core elements of the major still exist today—as do the benefits of cross-departmental study and the importance of taking tangible action for change.

This year, Rausser College of Natural Resources celebrates 50 years of this groundbreaking major and the many alumni who have taken their unique experiences with them to careers around the globe. They have served in local and state government positions, led environmental organizations, worked as conservation biologists and resource managers, advanced green building and construction practices, started nonprofits, engaged in environmental education, and much more.

An anniversary event held at the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve in Santa Clara County in April offered students, alumni, faculty, and staff the chance to connect and share memories. Here we present a collection of reflections from some of those who have been a part of this special program through the years.

A group of people talking outside

Students and alumni connect during the CRS 50th anniversary event held at Blue Oak Ranch in April 2023.

Photo by Julie Gipple.

Community Matters

“We felt freedom and equality, with faculty that respected us and allowed us to participate in decision-making. Some environmental issue would be in the news, and we’d have a class on it the next quarter. It felt really cutting edge.”
Ellen Kaye Gehrke (BS ’75 CNR), one of the first students in the program

“The faculty would urge us students to take learning to work and get involved in community efforts like recycling, lobbying the city to ban pesticides, and working on campaigns like the one to municipalize PG&E. Next thing I knew I was walking precincts and registering students to vote.”
— California State Senator Nancy Skinner (BS ’77 CNR; MA ’89 Education), in written remarks for the CRS 50th anniversary celebration

“It was a really creative place at that time. The faculty actually listened to us; we were co-creating and designing things together. Berkeley’s big, but being in the program was like having a family.”
Anne Parker (BS ’74 CNR), another early student in the program

“Alt-grad is a great opportunity for us to get away from the hustle and bustle of campus during graduation season, and knowing that it was planned by students for students makes it a really intimate and meaningful celebration.”
Thuy-Tien Bui (BS ’23 CRS), on the tradition of an alternative graduation organized by CRS students

Interdisciplinary Environmentalism

“We hope to facilitate the interdisciplinary links between humans and nature, between past and future, between science and ethics… The excitement and inspiration of devising and implementing new policies, scientific approaches, and ways of thinking vitalize us. The hope that we may have some small effect on the earth of the future unifies our study and work.”
— Professor Carolyn Merchant, then chair of CRS, in the 1986 major bulletin

A black and white image of three young people in Yosemite

Joseph Holmes, ’73 CNR, captured this image of himself and classmates Anne Parker (left) and William Searcy (right) atop Matterhorn Peak in Yosemite National Park in 1972. They and other students in the program created one of the first wilderness permit programs for Yosemite.

“The CRS program is visionary in its approach to environmental problem-solving. It emphasizes systems thinking and collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, which maps nicely onto the very complex real world of policy and decision-making where there are folks who may not share our values or see the world as we do.”

Hillary Lehr (BS ’07 CRS), moderating an alumni panel during the CRS 50th anniversary celebration

“As individuals we may have different interests but we are all analytical and passionate, and being in one space together during office hours is really impactful.”
Isabel Cabrera, junior CRS major and co-president of the Conservation and Resource Studies Student Organization

“Students are the pilots of their education, and the faculty advisors and I are like the air traffic control, making sure things are going in the right direction.”
Sarah Rhoades, academic advisor for the major

An Academic Outlier

“We wanted to be together and focus on what it would mean to live a more sustainable lifestyle in the city. The terms ‘environmentalism’ and ‘sustainability’ weren’t even being used yet.”
Tom Javits (BS ’74 CNR), who co-founded the Greenhouse on Ellsworth Street where CNR students held courses, grew their own food, and promoted ecological living

“There was no other program like it at the time anywhere in the country. It was and still is quite unique.”
Gordon Frankie, an emeritus professor who taught ESPM 100, a core course in the program, for 20 years

“We sense something relatively unique in CNR students and graduates: they express a hope for the future. Not a naive hope, but a hope fashioned out of a prolonged struggle with the crises confronting humankind, and the experience of relationship, support, and strength from working together to resolve these crises in a cooperative community.” 
John Hurst, a UC Berkeley professor of education who co-founded the CNR program, in a 1981 report about its impact.

“Berkeley wasn’t exactly a friendly ecosystem to this kind of endeavor. Faculty members who were involved were sometimes sailing against the wind. In some sense, they were ahead of their time.”
Rolf Diamant, valedictorian of the first class that graduated with a CNR major in 1973

“In the early 70s there was still the idea that you could have the hero scientist or the hero scholar who would come up with a new way of solving all environmental problems at once. But what we recognize today is that there is no solution to environmental problems unless there is an intergenerational responsibility and connectivity.”
— Ignacio Chapela, a professor in the program and its current faculty advisor

Visit the Rausser College of Natural Resources site for a more in depth look at the history of the Conservation and Resource Studies program

This is the first in a series of stories commemorating 50 years if the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley. Stay tuned for more in 2024!