‘Legacy’ of volunteers contributes to conservation in Zion National Park

ST. GEORGE — National park enthusiasts interested in environmental conservation have an opportunity to volunteer in Zion National Park. 

Volunteers in Zion National Park work in the preservation and maintenance of trails and ditches, Springdale, Utah, April 12, 2022 | Photo provided by Hannah Knapp, American Conservation Experience, St. George News

“This summer, we’re seeking applicants for the Traditional Trades Apprenticeship Program and a vacancy as an Interpretive Media Technician,” Jonathan M. Shafer, Zion National Park public affairs specialist, said. “Both programs build on the park’s legacy of public service, help teach new skills and contribute to the common good.” 

Zion National Park desires volunteers to contribute to historic preservation projects alongside Cedar Breaks and Pipe Spring preservation and maintenance staff. No experience is required, but applicants should be interested in historic preservation.

This project runs in conjunction with the Indian Youth Service Corps Program. People who identify as Native American, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian and/or Alaska Native are encouraged to apply, Shafer said.

Volunteer conservation efforts have a long history with Zion National Park. Present-day volunteers said Tuesday they feel connected to the past through their work. They are a part of the American Conservation Experience, Mountain West Crew Program. The group is a nonprofit conservation corps. 

One of the historic irrigation ditches at the Watchman Campground in Zion National Park that receives care from volunteers from the American Conservation Experience, Springdale, Utah, April 12, 2022 | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

“It’s really cool to learn more about the Civilian Conservation Corps,” O’Livia McIntosh, a volunteer from New York, said. “A lot of times at places where we are working, I’ve seen that the CCC was also there. They left their little metal stamp at the top of a mountain, or you see a plaque saying what they did. And it’s cool to add to that and uphold that.”

The Civilian Conservation Corps was started in 1933 by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help unemployment during the Great Depression. This provided an opportunity for thousands of young men to work on environmental conservation projects.

Currently, American Conservation Experience crew members are digging ditches to help water the native plants in Zion. This is among other projects they will work on during their eight weeks within the park, all of which focus on building sustainable, long-lasting improvements to the park. And they want the projects to last. 

“We won’t have to come back each year to fix it. When we put in stairs or a bridge or something like that, we make sure to use rocks and dirt and build it into the landscape,” McIntosh said. “So we’re always keeping in mind how we’re building to make sure that it’s safe.

“And if we’re building a trail, it’s limiting people to this trail and not letting them traverse all over the landscape and trash it. We’re making sure it’s sustainable and the work will stand on its own without having to be checked on for years to come.”

A unique part of the experience in Zion National Park is improving areas that early pioneers first installed. The volunteers are working on the Flanigan ditch, initially constructed in the 1880s by Thomas Flanagan and his family who were Latter-Day Saint pioneers sent by their leader Brigham Young to farm the area.

Around the time the Civil War was ramping up, cotton was an in-demand commodity since the South and the North didn’t want to trade. The pioneers built irrigation ditches to grow cotton, and the Flanagan family lived in Springdale. Descendants of the family used the irrigation ditch until 1961 when the National Park Service took it over.

There are six historic ditches in the park and four are listed on the National Historic Places register. Many of these are covered with debris or are underground. The ditches are next to the Virgin River near the park’s South Entrance. They are known as the Crawford, Oak Creek, Phantom, Pine Creek, Flanigan and the Springdale Irrigation Ditches.

The ditches may have been built upon original Paiute trenches or modeled after them. If any artifacts are discovered, they will be returned to the Paiute tribe if requested. The park has started discussions with tribal leaders recently, Shafer said.

Shaffer said American Conservation Experience, which oversees the volunteers, is doing a “wonderful” job working with National Park Service staff. The group helps improve the irrigation infrastructure to function the way it has historically supported the native species in the park.

Cody Crawford, American Conservation Experience operations manager, said the volunteers are local and nationwide.

“They want to come and be a part of the amazing parks in this area,” Crawford said. “And then getting to come to Zion gives them the opportunity to experience the actual cultural resources here and protect them. And they get a lot of skills from working with American conservation experience, but from the park service.”

Crawford said the volunteers gain many skills from working with American Conservation Experience and directly from the park service. And because they’re allowed to view the park’s archives and learn about its history and culture, volunteers gain a deeper understanding of the place. Having a hand in both learning and protecting national resources also makes trail maintenance more meaningful when it sometimes leads to a historic site within a park.

But one of the most essential facets of the program is the development of relationships, Crawford said.

“One of my favorite things to see is the relationships that come out of our core members being out here in the park. Our crew leaders are interacting with the project partners with the park service members,” Crawford said. “Creating an excellent partnership and getting the opportunity to be a part of such a big and popular park is amazing for me to see. And I know it’s amazing for their experience, too.”

Many volunteers have never viewed mountains or been to a national park before, Hannah Knapp, American Conservation Experience Mountain West operations manager, said. 

“We are so fortunate to show them Zion and the amazing resources here. A lot of them are interested in working in conservation for the long haul or a full-time job,” Knap said. “They get to form relationships here both with each other and with the park service to help build those resources to have a career in the outdoors. It can be very daunting for someone; they’re passionate about trails in the outdoors and don’t know where to get started.”


Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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