I love living in Arizona. The natural landscapes have always been among my favorite places to explore, with its many climates and ecosystems, including the desert, forests, mountains, and canyons. Yet, the native flora and fauna in my state face a serious threat: invasive species.
Invasives, such as buffelgrass and quagga mussels, pose a direct economic and environmental threat to the health of natural ecosystems. National Public Lands Day is a way that I learn about Arizona’s land and help out where it’s needed. My decision this year was easy. Where better to give back than one of the most unique landscapes in the entire state of Arizona? When I saw the joint project organized by Petrified Forest National Park and NPCA to help remove an invasive species, I knew that was the project for me.
So on a cool, crisp Saturday morning earlier this fall, I sipped coffee and enjoyed the clear air in the parking lot at the Painted Desert visitor center as 13 like-minded volunteers filtered in to help. Park Superintendent Brad Taver and Deputy Chief of Interpretation Sarah Herve gathered us around the work trucks and explained the task for the day. A newly acquired portion of the park needed some work to become a new entry point for day-hikers and backpackers into the wilderness of the Painted Desert. The work included cleaning up trash and invasive tumbleweed around a future caretaker’s property and staking out a new entry trail into the wilderness.
After meeting some amazing fellow volunteers from all over the state, including a couple with more than 200 miles’ worth of trail creation and maintenance experience, we loaded up the vehicles and headed to the work site. I was fortunate to get to ride with NPCA’s Kevin Dahl, who shared quite a bit about the work he has been doing to support Petrified Forest National Park. Many of the unique fossils and remains are so well-preserved, they give researchers insight into the history of the high desert of Arizona (and there’s much more than just petrified wood, too).
At the worksite, we opened up the building, broke out the tasks and tools, and got to work. Being the “young guy,” I was in charge of pounding stakes for a new fence to house the trash and tumbleweed. Because the area was extremely dry and the tumbleweed was so extensive, trucking it out was not an option. Instead, we created a barbed-wire pen to pile and compress the tumbleweed until snow was on the ground and a controlled burn was possible. Curious, I asked where the tumbleweed had invaded from, expecting to hear an answer like Texas or Mexico. The response I got was quite enlightening and surprising: It is native to Russia! Tumbleweed came over to America only around a hundred years ago, likely in a shipment of wheat. I had no idea!
A couple that had recently moved to Arizona from Maine helped me run the barbed wire, and I was impressed by their kindness and energy. All of the volunteers were so enthusiastic that I grew encouraged to know that national parks have such advocates scattered across Arizona. We even completed our work early and sat down for lunch to share stories and enjoy each other’s company. Participants included retirees, life-long Petrified Forest enthusiasts, workers from nearby Arizona State, and active hikers and backpackers. Capping it all off, we were among the first to hike the new trail into the wilderness, through a landscape of colors, meadows, and pockets of petrified wood. What an exciting sneak peek at the views future backpackers will experience in the isolated wilderness of the Painted Desert. We said our goodbyes, but also knew that we just might run into each other again in conservation efforts around Arizona. At least I hope so, since it is such a rewarding way to spend a Saturday!