National Public Lands Day volunteers create a new trail

Photo By Diane Drobka: Gila Valley Hiking Club volunteers began work at the Owl Creek Campground, delineating the trail with rocks

By Diane Drobka

GILA BOX – Volunteers from the Gila Valley Hiking Club partnered with the Safford Field Office to construct a new trail within the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area on Nov. 14. This year marked the 30th anniversary of the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, signed into law via the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act of 1990. The work enhanced the recreational values of the area by connecting the Owl Creek Campground, located along the BLM’s Black Hills Back Country Byway, with picnic areas and improving access to the boat put-in along the Gila River.  

Photo By Diane Drobka: A volunteer in the lead (working downhill) pruned desert shrubs that were close to the trail while other volunteers cleared the path and lined it with rocks.

The project was a celebration of National Public Lands Day, normally held in late September. With daytime temperatures still hovering in the high 90s and low 100s at that time, the project was delayed until November to allow volunteers a more pleasant work environment. It could not have been a more perfect day, with turquoise blue skies and temperatures cool enough for physical labor. A bonus was the scenic view of the Gila River’s cottonwood-willow riparian gallery below, with leaves beginning to acquire their yellow autumn glow. 

Photo By Diane Drobka: A crew led by BLM outdoor recreation specialist Bob Wells continued their installation of an aluminum pedestrian gate as another crew passed by while completing the lower section of the trail.

After a safety briefing, volunteers split into two groups, with one group installing a pedestrian gate for access through a fence. Most volunteers created the quarter-mile trail, pruning back desert brush, clearing a path for the trail, and lining it with rocks to make it easy to follow. Group size was kept small and social distancing was practiced due to the current coronavirus pandemic. “Work began at 8:30 a.m. and we expected to finish at noon but, thanks to the volunteers’ hustle, we were done by 10:30,” said Safford Field Office outdoor recreation planner Zack Kelley, who organized the project.  

Afterward, volunteers were given NPLD t-shirts and enjoyed lunch along the river, with some driving the Byway on their return to Safford. This year marked the 27th anniversary of National Public Lands Day, the nation’s largest single-day volunteer event for public lands. Last year, more than 156,000 volunteers of all ages participated in projects at more than 2,000 public lands sites in 49 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. with an estimated $6 million value of time donated. NPLD is coordinated by the National Environmental Education Foundation with support from national corporate sponsor Toyota North America, seven federal agencies, hundreds of state and local partners, and dozens of nonprofit organizations. 

Photo By Diane Drobka: The new trail is obvious where it begins at the Owl Creek parking lot. Just as they completed their work, volunteers on the other end were pleased to see a visitor already hiking the trail from the campground to the river.
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