Guest Commentary

A volunteer trip in the wilderness is a gloriously guilty pleasure

I just got back from a volunteer weekend, and boy, do I feel guilty.

I spent the weekend helping the Sky Island Alliance--a local conservation group that works to protect and expand wilderness areas in Southern Arizona and New Mexico, among other things--survey a local canyon. Whence comes the guilt? Let me count the ways.

It's not just because my girlfriend, Louise, currently works there. (I guess you could count this as a disclaimer, although I volunteered for these guys long before she started.) And it's not just because I can claim volunteer hours for the sort of thing I would be doing in my spare time anyway--namely, exploring the forests and deserts of Southern Arizona.

No, this conflation of guilt and volunteerism goes back at least a couple years.

That's when I convinced a very sensible judge that the University of Arizona athletic department's dictation of neighborhood parking ordinances was not only idiotic but unjust, thus qualifying me for "community service" hours in the field with Sky Island Alliance in lieu of a big, fat fine.

Our leader on this trip was Trevor Hare, a thoroughly whiskered, bald-headed, cigar-chomping wild man who looks not unlike what you would expect a retired Navy Seal to look like, except he acts more like Ed Abbey, without the misanthropy. Tucson Weekly readers may remember Trevor's dour countenance glaring out at them from the cover of a recent issue, lamenting the destruction of Arizona's wild areas (and the foiling of the volunteer road closing activities he coordinates) by dope runners and motorheads.

Louise and I lit out on Friday afternoon for the northeast flank of the Huachuca Mountains, armed with two days' worth of food, beer and fine tequila, and Trevor's typically cryptic directions: "Take a left here, I think it's signed, go 2-4 miles on this dirt road ... ." Two, or maybe double that. Sigh.

But, as usual, we made it. The one disturbing thing was the looming presence of the ridiculous drug blimp that hovers over the north end of the Huachuca range, floating above the piney ridgeline like a vast, flying white elephant on a very long leash. The closer we got to the site, the closer we got to that blimp. Kinda creepy.

Saturday morning, about 10 of us received marching orders and necessary equipment--maps, GPS, radio, camera, inventory forms, everything we would need to thoroughly document our hike--and set out down a delicate little canyon with an intermittent trickle winding through it. Our task was to seek water and corresponding riparian habitat, document the existence and condition of travelways (paths, jeep trails, roads, etc.), and note any critters we encountered, especially those of the endangered and threatened persuasion. And keep a special eye out for snakes. Trevor loves snakes.

The point is to compile a database full of reasons to close roads, expand wilderness and restore natural areas. We succeeded, though at times, the map didn't make sense (there was no jeep trail where there should have been one, which I guess is a good thing). In one side canyon, we found no water, but we did run into a group of 20 Mexican migrants cooling themselves in the shade. Startled, all I could think of to say was "buenas tardes!" (much to their amusement) and be on my way.

But I wasn't half as startled as Trevor when 30 more stumbled across him as he tried to take an environmentally correct wilderness dump the next morning. My border spies tell me that a greatly inflated legend of the wacko vigilantes stalking the more-popular migrant corridors near Douglas has spread like word-of-mouth wildfire in the staging areas of Sonora, pushing migrants even further into wild areas like the one we were in.

It's a shame. Will the clatter and trash chase away the black-hawk we saw nesting along the watercourse? How about the elegant trogon we heard croaking in the trees, which precipitated a sneaky surveillance that resulted in my long-awaited first glimpse of this majestic bird? (The guilt, the guilt!) Just about everything people in this country do to stop drug smuggling and illegal immigration accomplishes neither, but does result in mounting damage to the environment.

All the more reason to get out and map it, photograph it, document it and then fight like hell to protect it. And if you can hold a gobble-chat with a wild turkey and concoct blimp liberation strategies around the fire, it becomes glorious, guilty fun to boot. If you're in the market for self-serving volunteerism, I highly recommend it.

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