Citizen Army

A donation to Madera Canyon illustrates an increase in public participation on public lands

In the 1930s, with the nation depressed and jobless, thousands of able-bodied men came to Arizona to work in the state's forests and deserts for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Their work can still be seen today throughout our national parks, national monuments and federal recreation areas, artifacts of an age when what was built was built to last.

Chances are, on any given day and in any given forest, the trail you're hiking on or the picnic area you're enjoying was constructed by CCC men, many of them from parts as far away as the Northeast, most of them unfamiliar with the Western wilds. Though the Depression was a trying time for the nation, to say the least, the West benefited greatly from the work of the CCC, and there hasn't been anything quite like it since.

That is not to say that the average citizen isn't involved these days in protecting and improving public lands. Saturday, Sept. 29, is National Public Lands Day, an event meant to carry on the work of the CCC; last year, some 100,000 Americans participated.

Here in Southern Arizona, this year has been a particularly busy one for public participation on the public lands. The Friends of Sabino Canyon raised more than $600,000 to help reverse the destruction caused by last year's flooding in that famous and beloved recreation area, while hundreds of citizens attended Coronado National Forest meetings on a new forest plan.

"On the Coronado, partnerships with the public are becoming more prevalent," said forest spokeswoman Heidi Schewel. "The public loves their public lands; we get people calling all the time to volunteer--they don't just want to hike; they want to get involved."

Schewel added that forest officials want to include the public's input in decision-making more--a major goal of the new round of forest plan revisions

"They augment what we do, and I think we are going to see more partnerships in the future," she said.

Meanwhile, south of Tucson in the Santa Rita Mountains, the Friends of Madera Canyon have rather quietly over the last two years been working on an interpretive trail that rivals the very best of what the CCC did. The Bud Gode Interpretive Nature Trail in Madera Canyon, a world famous birding and hiking destination near Green Valley, is set to open officially in early October.

Bud Gode, for whom the trail is named, was a popular past president of FOMC and a seemingly tireless hiker and naturalist who spent the majority of his retirement exploring and learning about Madera Canyon. He passed away in May 2005, and his family, looking for a proper way to remember him, decided to donate $250,000 to FOMC for a project that would carry on Gode's philosophy of "preservation through education."

This was a somewhat difficult decision, said Gode's widow, Green Valley resident Mary Gode. Her husband liked wilderness, and he "didn't even want to see an extra bench installed in the canyon," she said.

But Gode was also an educator, and for years, he led an FOMC program that took school children into the canyon to teach them about its unique sky island flora and fauna.

"He always thought that the more he taught them, the better the future of the canyon would be," Mary Gode said.

What was eventually settled on was a series of educational panels scattered throughout the canyon, the majority of them placed under two octagonal ramadas, one at the bottom of the canyon and one at the top. The panels, prepared by FOMC educational director Doug Moore (who also literally wrote the book on Madera Canyon, The Nature of Madera Canyon, published by FOMC), explain the various life-zones that occur throughout the canyon, from the scrubby grasslands at its bottom to the pine and oak forests near its top.

Other panels along the way detail the various mammals and birds found in the canyon, the role that fire plays and the history of human habitation in the area. Reading the panels is something like getting a general education on the sky islands while at the same time experiencing the beauty and diversity of the place firsthand.

"The Gode family and the community went way out of their way on this project," said Keith Graves, district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service's Nogales Ranger District, which includes Madera Canyon. "This project will really enhance what is already in the canyon."

The project ended up costing around $300,000, with the majority of the money coming from the Gode family, and additional funding from a state grant. The project represents one of the largest publicly funded endeavors in Madera Canyon's history.

Considering the well-known frustrations that typically rise when dealing with a large bureaucracy, it wasn't always easy working with the Forest Service on the project, said Moore. There were a lot of hands and opinions in the mix, he said, and that sometimes slowed things down. But in the end, it was worth it, he said.

Barring a huge government investment in the national forests--which isn't probable, seeing as how most districts have little in their budgets these days for projects outside general upkeep--the CCC isn't likely to be revived anytime soon. But there seems to be a new kind of citizen army on the rise, one that uses not only hard work, but hard cash to make sure the public lands remain something to be proud of.

"I think there are a lot of different opinions out there that need to be expressed when it comes to the public lands, and it is up to us to get involved and assert ourselves," Moore said. "If we don't have volunteers donating money and time, there are a lot of things that just won't get done."