If you were down by Hafen Park on Monday, Dec. 11, you might have seen a swarm of students and adults spread out over the burned area, busily doing restoration work and planting 300 native plants in just a few short hours. But first, a bit of background:

This past July an arsonist set a fire just south of the Hafen Park.  The quick action of firefighters contained the blaze to 13 acres and stopped the fire from spreading to nearby homes, Hughes Middle School and Hafen Park.  However, 13 burned acres left an ugly scar on the land and provided a fertile ground for tamarisk and other invasive weeds to take over.

Quickly moving into bare areas is what weeds, tamarisks and invasives do while most native vegetation takes longer to reestablish itself.  That’s why the City of Mesquite, at the nearby mitigation site, decided long ago to focus volunteer efforts on removing tamarisks—realizing that keeping the tamarisks at bay would give the natives time to gain a foothold and that has happened within the mitigation site.

The burned acreage next to the Hafen Park had other immediate concerns though, a main one being erosion.  The dirt at that site is loose and every windstorm blows some away and even a small rain event with some runoff would sweep a lot of that dirt away.  The BLM manages this property and applied for emergency funding to start restoring that land sooner than later.

And thus, the volunteer day was an informal partnership quickly formed between the BLM, the City of Mesquite, Partners in Conservation (PIC), and the Virgin Valley High School FFA. With 300 gallon-size alkali sacaton needing to be planted in one day, the BLM crew needed some help and this kind of hands-on field work fits right into FFA classroom studies.

Jeri Benell, FFA advisor and teacher, thought this would be an excellent opportunity to give students hands-on experience in a natural setting and let them gain knowledge about restoration work.  She also wanted to expose students to some of the careers in conservation to help guide them as they start to think about life after high school.

The BLM was very supportive of this educational aspect. The National Park Service’s (Lake Mead) Exotic Plant Team heard about the project and asked if they could attend also and participate in the careers in conservation portion too.

And so, early Monday morning 20 students and 20 adults (the Mesquite Kokopelli ATV Club also volunteered) got busy planting the alkali sacaton. Aleta Nafus, BLM Weed Management Specialist, explained that this grass was hardy and produced plenty of seeds, so it would reseed itself in the area.

She explained the overall plan, “We are planning to plant willows, ash, screwbean mesquite and cottonwood on the site in the next couple months. We have already seeded with Indian ricegrass, desert globemallow and milkweed. This site is critical habitat for yellow-billed cuckoo and Southwestern Willow flycatcher. We are removing saltcedar, known also as tamarisk which is a noxious weed that salinates and sterilizes the soil.”

She also stated that alkali sacaton was an excellent replacement for fountaingrass which has been added to the state’s noxious weed list, something homeowners might be interested in knowing.

About 11:15 everyone took a lunch break and 6 people each took 5 minutes explaining why they worked in conservation, the jobs they had to get them to where they are today, the education, and personal choices they had made.  Students appreciated hearing how some knew exactly what they wanted to be at an early age, how some changed their mind a bunch of times, how some arrived at their current job without a college degree.  It was especially interesting to hear all the places they had worked from Maine to Hawaii to Alaska.  The main message they left with the students was just that—to take different temporary or seasonal jobs in different places as that really helped each of them figure out what they didn’t want to do….and what they really liked doing.  Before everyone went back to finish planting, PIC passed out a “Careers in Conservation” booklet providing students with more info for them to discuss and research.

Benell summed the day up, “It was a great day, perfect weather, excellent chance for my students to do actual field work, to learn about career possibilities, to work with their hands….and our soils judging team who recently took 1st place in state competition is going to get some training and experience as a couple of the folks here today are going to work with the students—we are going to the national soils judging competition and we want to do VVHS proud!”