More and more people from around the world are getting a close-up look at some of America's most spectacular landscapes by volunteering to work at national parks and forests in the American Southwest. The visitors help restore the natural environment and build and repair trails, creeks, fences and retaining walls. Meanwhile, the organizer of the program believes they also end up with a better appreciation of the United States.
Since early this year, volunteers from East Asia, South Asia and Europe have worked six-week shifts outdoors in places like Arizona's Walnut Canyon National Monument. That is where Belgians and Andrew Richardson had the job recently of digging postholes to put up a fence. One morning, as they straddled an ever-deepening hole, one of them swung a pickaxe, sending rocks and dirt flying. The other grabbed the loose dirt with a post digger, a glorified shovel that resembles a pair of salad tongs.
They are methodical as they carve into the tough ground. "Sometimes it's ten minutes or so," says Mr. Goalings. "Other times, you're working for an hour or longer just to dig a hole." The former interior architect pauses a minute to wipe his brow. "I'm going to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger," he laughs.
Building muscles like Arnold is not the goal of the American Conservation Experience (ACE). created the volunteer work camp to bring people from various countries together to gain a deeper understanding of each other and America. He says he hopes the experience will counter the growing anti-American sentiment he sees around the world. "I think if you bring people together and not just in a random arbitrary setting but in a setting where they are challenged, where they're forced to develop as people through that challenge, then nothing but good can come of it."
Mr. Baker does not sugar coat the experience. He makes sure applicants know that it takes hard work to build a fence line that snakes up one rugged hill of Walnut Canyon and down another. "If we underplayed the challenge part," he explains, "we would have people who would drop like flies in the first week. We really emphasize the physical and mental, emotional challenges, the traveling, different work locations and sometimes the backcountry hiking that's involved. As a result, we've got people who aren't too intimidated."
Chris Goalings agrees that, at times, it can be backbreaking labor. "Sometimes you have to carry bags of concrete a few miles down into canyons," he says. "You work for four days and have three days off. It's not all vacation."
But the hard work doesn't faze Sonia and her friend, who are both volunteers from South Korea. With a giggle, they say the real challenge is speaking English. "Every day now, we're studying English but we can't speak it well," Sonia explains. She says she is happy to work on her language skills as she enjoys her work outdoors. "Yes, it's a little hot," she says, "but fun and interesting."
ACE is one of a growing number of volunteer conservation programs around the world. Similar projects offer people the chance to work in Africa, South Asia, and the Pacific. Chris Baker says the appeal of his program is the opportunity to see the unique environment of the American Southwest. "In the last four weeks we've taken them to Monument Valley, to Navajo National Monument, to Zion [National] Park, to Las Vegas," he says. He believes the travel provides a good trade off, since participants are not paid for their work.
The autumn conservation experience program is wrapping up with some trail restoration in the Grand Canyon. A fresh group of international volunteers will start their adventures in January.