Congress has not allocated enough money in recent years to clean up and maintain the nation's parks and monuments, so service groups like Wilderness Volunteers are coming to the rescue in places like the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument - a red rock canyon in southern Utah.
A dozen men and women from age 30 to 70 stand knee deep in Henderson Creek discussing how they can use group muscle power to carry out an old refrigerator dumped into the water years ago. Besides the old refrigerator, volunteers spend the day carrying out tires, beer cans, bottles of hair spray and syrup, and rusted car parts - enough to fill the back of a big pick up truck to overflowing.
Computer software worker Stacey Hess of Park City, Utah sighs, then looks up at her spectacular surroundings - pink and ivory sandstone cliffs brushed with evergreen pinyon and juniper forests. She applauds former President Clinton for creating the almost 800,000-hectare Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, but says she's angry about all the trash.
"That people could be so arrogant to not respect this land and just how beautiful it is and not understand that leaving trash out here ruins it for everyone, but it makes me mad too because people like us have to come in and clean up after them," she says.
But her anger quickly turns to laughter as she explains that working with Wilderness Volunteers is one way to give something back to the environment. Kim Crihfield agrees. An emergency room doctor in Portland, Oregon, Ms. Crihfield says the group gives her the opportunity to be politically active in a hands-on fashion. "Gee look, I'm picking up this can, I'm really doing something - whereas some of the political things -writing letters, sending e-mails - you're not always sure if that's making an impact, you send them off but never really know," she says.
Wilderness Volunteers are making a difference, says Bureau of Land Management Recreation Planner Craig Sorenson. In fact, he admits, the clean-up work probably wouldn't get done without help from service groups. And Mr. Sorenson says he hopes the Wilderness Volunteers will pass their knowledge along.
"We as a people are stewards of the land, and learning how to be the best stewards is certainly what we all ought to have in mind," he says.
The volunteers spend four days building 50 rock cairns or markers to improve the Henderson Creek Trail. For each cairn they must dig a hole, find three boulders that fit well together, then carry the rocks to the cairn site in a net. That takes several people.
"We provide an opportunity for people who love wilderness, who love the out of doors, to have direct involvement," says John Sherman, co-founder of the four-year-old group.
Wilderness Volunteers offers 38 service trips this year to places such as Olympic National Park, Wyoming's Wind River Range, the Boundary Waters in Minnesota and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. By year's end, 450 volunteers will have contributed 10,000 hours of work, cleaning up trash, replanting damaged lands and fixing trails.
After completing their last rock trail marker, the 12 men and women plan to celebrate by hiking that trail, then spending two days just enjoying the grandeur of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Park photos by Jerry Sintz, courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Land Management