by Lee Hayes

May 2022

I’ve heard that it takes three days in nature for one’s entire body to balance itself out. I have also heard it is a pretty good prescription for most things that ail us. I certainly can provide empirical evidence that this may be true. 

For me those effects were noticeable almost immediately. I don’t know if it’s the fresh air, the interactions with wildlife or my slumber beneath a starry sky but I have never felt more human. This line of work causes you to employ all your senses, keep mental sharpness, and naturally maintains your physical fitness. Thankfully, there is little time in the day for boredom, sadness or anxiety. It is too full of work and wonder.

Some of you may be curious about the details of my job. I work for Conservation Legacy in the Southwest Conservation Corps on the Multi-watershed Monitoring team. Americorps, a federal conservation program, funds the Conservation Legacy through which many conservation corps across America operate. I was hired to work on four watersheds in the four corners area; the Verde (Arizona), the Gila (Arizona), the Dolores (Colorado), and the Escalante (Utah). 

In each watershed, we partner with local conservation initiatives like Friends of the Verde River. We walk the riparian areas on both sides of the river in one mile sections, monitoring and mapping the locations of invasive plant species. Along the way, at the behest of several biologists interested in this watershed, we are on the lookout for certain endangered species; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, narrow-headed garter snake, and Mexican garter snake. We are also on the lookout for some secondary invasive herbaceous plants. Inevitably, we bump into all sorts of other creatures like hawks, eagles, deer, elk, javelina and skunks!

The invasive plant species data we collect is used to create management plans for the areas where we monitor. We might find evidence of a critical canopy competition between native and invasive plants, in which case a team is deployed to remove them. Each year we can see how these areas are recovering and understand the health of the rivers over time. 

Here on the Verde River, the primary invasive plants of concern are Tamarisk, or salt cedar (Tamarix ramosissima), Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), and giant reed (Arundo donax). They each have fascinating histories and attributes but what they all share is the fact they were introduced here by humans at various points in the early 1800’s. I will bypass an essay in favor of two quick messages I’d like to squeeze in.

The first is some friendly advice for those young scientists out there – if you want to pursue the sciences in any capacity, I highly recommend you get into conservation work. If you would like to add to the scientific catalog and make a measurable positive impact, I believe there are no better options. Conservation work is a superhighway from which many fields branch, and it provides one with a stunning array of potential career paths. In my work with the Verde I procure data that can be used by ecologists to study flora, fauna, fungi, soil, and water, to name a few. Through the lens of conservation work, you can get a better sense of what you are truly interested in, or specialize in the field you may already be dedicated to, all while gaining invaluable work experience. 

No matter who you are or what you do, you can get involved in conservation work; download the app iNaturalist. It is a citizen science program, originally a Master’s final project of Ken-ichi, Nate Agrin, and Jessica Kline at UC Berkeley’s School of Information in 2008. After seven years of development, iNaturalist became an initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and shortly after became a partner with the National Geographic Society. This app enables anyone with a device to take pictures and upload them into a database where they can all be identified and potentially used in scientific publications. Everyone has the ability to contribute valuable data, and anyone can contribute even without leaving their home! Indeed, there are scientists who need to know what sorts of creepy crawlies you have living in your house! Everywhere you go, you can use the app to identify most living things you can find, and in the satisfaction of your curiosity you help preserve the biodiversity on this planet. 

Lee pictured here helping young community scientists with iNaturalist

Learn more about how Friends uses iNaturalist: https://verderiver.org/bioblitz

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