Stewards at the Creek

On March 27th, 2018, 20 students from Empire High School from Vail Arizona set out for a day of stewardship on the Arizona Trail. Using Gabe Zimmerman Trail Head, we hiked north toward Cienega Creek to do trail rehab and narrowing work. This portion of the trail used to be a two-track leading to the creek. For the last two years, groups have been working to narrow this path in order to keep vehicles out and to bring back its wild and natural aesthetics. This is the first time both Empire groups came together as a class for an SOS trip. We were a force to be reckoned with, and we proved to be just the crew for the job.

This was a return trip for empire students. Empire High School began their SOS expeditions first by exploring Cienega Creek, wandering endlessly down its lush and riparian corridor. We discussed its significance as a corridor for migrating animals and plants, linking Sky Island mountains together and offering an oasis in the heart of the desert. The students were eager to come back and help repair the trail that brings travelers to this wonderland. Together we discussed safety, how to use the tools, and detailed descriptions of the work that needed to be done. One group would be needed to shut down “off-trail” hiking paths that were damaging the area significantly. Other groups would be tasked with relocating prickly pear, cholla, and debris onto the main trail in an attempt to shrink it laterally in half. The last group would help repair and establish drainages, helping prolong and reduce inevitable erosion. Once the group understood the tasks, we broke and began our work.

Carefully removing cactus pads and pods is like reaching through an electric fence trying to grab a bundle of barbed wire. The youth needed to remove the cactus in such a way that when buried halfway in the dirt, would root and grow, meaning they could not simply tear or knock pieces to the ground. Instead, they would need to be carefully cut at their joint, and carried without inflicting more damage to the plant, and person. It did not take long for the students to develop a system and some style to go with it.  Like ants collecting supplies to build a mound, students would leave and come back in an organized method piling and strategically placing plants in ways that seemed like they natural propagated there. The idea was to make the shrinkage look natural like the desert stole some of its lands back. Around the plants were strategical places debris of all sorts. It was like a micro-housing project for the smaller flora and fauna who hopefully would move into this new neighborhood.

Down the path, students were working on a similar project. Often, “off-trail” paths are originally created and frequently used by local fauna like coyotes, javelina, and deer. Unfortunately, once a path has been cut out, the pattern is recognizable and used by invasive species like cattle and humans. Weight, overuse, and grazing prevent new propagation and promote destruction and damage. The youth worked hard to relocate material to this area, intentionally pulling resources from a very large and wide perimeter so they did not cause more damage than they reduced. They lined the trail with small rocks, adding to the human-made look, but this temporary method helps remind people “we don’t want you over here, please stay on the trail”, and gives the desert landscape time to reclaim its territory. Plus, it looks pretty which is always a bonus.

Other students worked hard to dig out drainages so the water runoff did not continue to eat the trail away. This work is always fun but often requires a team as the March sun is hot and makes any physical work more intense. Together youth used pick-mattocks to dig and move earth. Their dripping sweat softened the hard-dusty earth below, making each swing a bit easier. In time, a well-made drainage was formed, waiting and ready for monsoons soon to come.

Overall the day was a massive success. The Empire students worked hard, finishing the project for a long while. It took hours, but in the end, the once two-track road was now an obvious and beautiful single-track hiking trail. The youth were very proud of their work, and as a reward, we hiked to the creek to dip our feet, cool off in the shade, and relish in the pride of a fulfilled day. It was a wildly successful day, and a wonderful way to wrap up a semester of wonderful hikes.