Exchange: Volunteers ‘Essential’ to Get Forest Projects Done

Janie Agyagos, a biologist, pulls a length of barbed wire
Janie Agyagos, a biologist, pulls a length of barbed wire from the edge of an old cattle tank in Sedona, Ariz., on Jan. 23, 2022. (Rachel Gibbons /The Daily News-Sun via AP)

By SEAN GOLIGHTLY Arizona Daily Sun.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — “Hopefully you’ve had your tetanus shots,” said Janie Agyagos as she put a foot on a rusty length of barbed wire and used the tension to coil the loose end. “I haven’t gotten my shot in a while,” she admitted.

The wire creaked as she curled it over itself.

Agyagos demonstrated the coiling technique to a small, volunteer crew of retired men. Outfitted with gloves, glasses and small bolt cutters — better for snipping multiple wires at once — they made a semicircle in the early morning fog that settled in the work site.

One toed the red earth while he listened to Agyagos’ safety talk, mud coming over his boots. Another donned a pair of homemade denim holsters that hung bolt cutters around his belt, like some kind of conservation cowboy. In the distance, orange sandstone bluffs emerged from the low-lying clouds.

“You don’t have to roll it too nicely; we’re not going to be able to recycle it,” Agyagos said. “The stuff we’re clearing out today is really old. A lot of it’s buried. At least that means it’s not under tension. You don’t have to worry about it whipping back when you cut it.”

She bent the wire back on itself and wrapped across the loops of coil to keep the barbed wire tightly together, then she tossed the thorny wreath into the bed of the pickup truck.

“Now, while we’re removing wire along this fence, look out for the posts,” she said, gesturing to a line of mossed juniper trunks that poked gut-height from the ground. “If they’re at an angle, they can catch wildlife, but they actually make good perches if they’re straight up.”

A wildlife biologist for the Coconino National Forest, Agyagos pays close attention to what harms and helps the living landscapes. At a site like this one — decayed fence near a silted-in cattle tank — she’s most concerned with the safety of pronghorn antelope, the Arizona Daily Sun reported.

“Pronghorn on the Red Rock Ranger District used to occur all throughout the Verde Valley. All throughout everything,” she said. “And now the only place we have them is on the west side of (Highway) 89, in between Cottonwood and Sedona. That’s it. They’ve been extirpated from 90% of the range.”

There’s a primary reason for this, Agyagos said.

“Range fences went in. Pronghorn do not like to jump fences, and they go under,” Agyagos said.

To spare the ducking animals a nasty snag, the Forest Service has been using fencing standards that include a smooth bottom wire since at least the 1990s. Unfortunately, this area of Arizona is crisscrossed by fencing that predates the current standard.

“We’ve lost pronghorn on numerous occasions on my district alone,” Agyagos said. Those deaths fall onto her agency’s shoulders. “The Forest Service manages the habitat. That means removing old unneeded fence or converting fence that’s not to wildlife specifications.”

It sounds straight forward, but because national forest land is permitted for multiple-use, something like hazardous fencing can be left over when permits shift from one holder to another. Like trash left by a previous tenant, the burden of responsibility is a little unclear at times.

“I go around and clean up range messes,” Agyagos said, “But it really shouldn’t be my job. The permittees should do it.”

There are more range messes than Agyagos can clean alone. She depends on volunteer hours served through work days like this one. But work days are not all hard labor.

When she finished the fence-removal safety talk, Agyagos trailed the crew around the muddy cattle tank, then up and over a berm on the far side. She told the group how she discovered the fence in this area while removing scotch thistle, an invasive plant from the sunflower family that aggressively reduces biodiversity. Then she pointed out beautiful bursts of native bush — Alkali Sacaton — where they erupted in long golden angles over the edge of the tank. The group mused over the exuberant foliage, and then Agyagos identified areas where volunteers might break off and start removing the tangles of barbed wire fence.

“Thing about fences is they’re harder to put in than to take out,” Agyagos encouraged.

Across the berm, she joined first-time volunteer Jim Richards to give him some extra training.

With a little instruction, Richards was cutting and coiling with ease, and in 20 minutes he had carried away several lengthy loops of spiked steel. Like the rest of the day’s volunteers, Richards was retired.

“I did cancer research at Berkeley for 20-some-odd years,” he shared. “My wife passed away about a year ago, and so I’m filling my free time with worthwhile endeavors.”

He was new to this particular group, but Richards had participated in similar projects through the Friends of the Forest, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting Forest Service in the Sedona area. Friends of the Forest connects people like Richards to service projects all across the land. There’s something satisfying about the work, Richards said.

“My philosophy has always been: when I leave the planet, I should have given more than I took,” he said.

Richards’ motivations were shared among the other volunteers. Once professionals from the fields of technology, education, medicine and more, the retired men largely agreed that volunteer work days were a great way to get outside, stay active and do something good for the land.

“It beats sitting and watching TV, eating potato chips,” said Bob Bare, an engineer from Cincinnati.

Ernie Demillo also connected to Agyagos’ fence removal project through Friends of the Forest. He shared that he had been volunteering on projects like this for ten years.

“You don’t do it all the time,” he said. “You come out once a week, twice a week. Four hours. You don’t go out 10 hours at a time.”

When it came to this particular fence removal site, the half dozen men wrapped up the work in less than two hours. The crew cleared enough fencing to overflow the bed of Agyagos’ pickup truck. Bare climbed atop the rusty snarl while Jim Manning, the man with the denim holsters, helped tie down the mess, threaded a rope through the biting coils and knotted it to the trailer hitch. The other men stood around and chatted happily, cursing bits of wire too buried to be removed, wondering about the species of tree that caught a few volunteers by its inch-long thorns, talking about work days past and future.

Their services would be needed again as soon as the next day, at a trail project in Oak Creek. Next month, Agyagos would need help removing fence in an area near Clarkdale.

“This weekend, we put in trail over by Bell Rock,” Richards said “There must have been 20 of us. We were like an army.”

The reality of this volunteer army is bittersweet. Sweetly, it indicates an ample supply of Samaritan hands in the community.

“We have so many volunteers that are willing to do this work,” Agyagos said.

But the bitter truth is that without volunteers, many projects on the forest might not get done.

“I don’t have anybody that works for me,” Agyagos said. “My volunteers are my program.”

She estimated that in her work alone, volunteer hours have provided the equivalent of five full-time positions. On the Red Rock Ranger District, volunteers contributed more than 360,000 hours of labor between 2017 and 2021. That’s equivalent to the labor of roughly 36 full-time jobs over five years. It’s a figure that draws into question whether the needs of the Forest Service are being met by a federal budget adequate to hire sufficient staff, or if they’re getting by on good graces.

It’s a deficit worth contemplation, but in the meantime, the volunteer relationship is still mutually beneficial. When the mist lifted and the morning sun touched the land, the men of Agyagos’ crew were all smiles, their hearts made robust by the early exertion.

It feels good to be needed, and when it comes to manning the unglamorous front lines of conservation and wildlif

AP, Environment, Land Conservation, News, Volunteering
AP, Environment, News