Connecting to Parks Through Service
Arizona Conservation Corps (AZCC) Ancestral Lands crew 366, sponsored by the National Park Foundation, spent the summer in Grand Canyon National Park for their three-month term of service. Throughout their season, this all-Native crew camped out on the South Rim, witnessed spectacular sunsets, and visited and worked in areas of the park that few ever get to see. Their work centered on restoring the National Park Service (NPS) boundary fence that encircles the park. In some areas, the fence was in such bad shape that they had to completely rebuild it. During their term of service, members received training in Wilderness First Aid, Leave No Trace ethics, and outdoor living practices. They also became adept at range fence repair. Each of those is a crucial skill for conservation practitioners, allowing them to stay safe in the field and minimize their own impacts, as well as manage the impacts of livestock on public lands.
The park boundary fence primarily serves as a barrier for wild horses, burros, and other livestock on nearby lands that belong to the Hualapai and Havasupai tribes. It can be challenging for the tribes living near the park to travel long distances to round up their animals, so both the park and its neighbors benefit from a protective and sturdy boundary. Crew 366 focused on repairing portions of the fence that border on these tribal lands. The impacts of livestock crossing the fence-line are felt on both sides: sensitive areas of the park can be damaged by trampling hooves, native plants may be devoured, and visitors can be put at risk. “This work is very important,” emphasized Arizona Conservation Corps Operations Director Russ Dickerson. “And it couldn’t happen without the park’s strong support of our Ancestral Lands crews, and without the generous funding we received from our partner the National Park Foundation.”
When the crew showed up to work on the fence, it was apparent that some areas required a lot of help. Such backlogged repairs are part of a long list of deferred maintenance projects within the National Park System. More than $11.9 billion in funds are currently needed for roads, buildings, utility systems, and other structures on NPS lands. With support from organizations like the National Park Foundation, service corps programs like AZCC are able to hone in on these critical projects, filling a gap to address an important issue.
Ty Polacca, a 21-year-old from the Pueblo of Zuni, NM, was one of the members of crew 366. He explained that the fence repair was “aesthetically pleasing work. It took a lot of concentration to get the right measurements and get the technique down, but it felt so satisfying seeing this perfect fence line stretching for miles after completing a section. It was a new experience for me—I’d never done that kind of work before. Learning how to use the different tools and about the different ecosystems within the park was really cool,” he said.
When the summer season came to a close, the crew had completed 14 miles of fence inspection and maintenance. They rebuilt over a full mile of brand-new fence. But those hard numbers don’t illustrate the personal growth they experienced or portray the beauty they witnessed. “On the second hitch of our season, the entire crew went out to the rim and we saw this gorgeous sunset,” Ty recalled. “We stayed until it got dark. No one talked—we just appreciated where we were in that moment."
"I felt like I was meant to be there, like I chose the right path. I felt like I was where I was supposed to be in the universe.”
After completing his season on crew 366, Ty applied for another position with Arizona Conservation Corps and will be back to work in the Grand Canyon later this fall.
"I visited the Canyon when I was a kid, and now I feel this strong connection to it,” he said. “I feel proud to be there. My mom told me that we have a very deep connection with the Canyon. Visiting it as a kid, I really didn’t know what I was seeing at the time. I was too young to appreciate how grand of an experience it was. Now that I’m older and working to maintain the park and keep it in good shape, it’s a whole different experience. There was something that drew me to the Canyon as a kid, and that same thing has drawn me back as an adult."
Ty hopes to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) someday after gaining some more experience with Arizona Conservation Corps. His brother currently works for the forestry department of the BIA, and Ty wants to follow in his footsteps. Ty explained how important the opportunity AZCC provides has been for him: the chance to see what it’s like to work for a government entity, the ability to develop professional connections and prepare for a future career. “There are a lot of areas that are very sacred to us that sometimes aren’t well maintained,” he described. “I feel that I can make a difference. I want to help push for the protection of those areas. I want to preserve these sacred sites and our way of life.”
As the summer season comes to a close and corps programs gear up for the fall season, Ty will join a new crew within AZCC. He’ll form new bonds with his fellow members and deepen his connection with the Grand Canyon even further. And in doing so, he’ll be taking one more step forward on his path to be a steward for the lands that mean so much to him.