I just finished a block course here entitled “Wetlands Ecology and Management” with long-time faculty Walt Anderson, yet another Environmental Studies class informing my goal of teaching Biology/Ecology to highschoolers. After reading that sentence and remembering that Prescott College is located in Arizona, many of you are probably crying foul. Perhaps you even exclaimed something aloud, something like “You can’t study wetlands in Arizona! That’s preposterous!” Maybe you even threw your arm up in the air, index finger extended in a Doc Brown-esque moment of eccentric energy. I, too, was once uniformed and excitable as you, dear reader, but hopefully I can allow you to understand another aspect of Arizona as I do now.
When you mention Arizona, most folks picture a desolate wasteland, populated only by saguaro cactus and spontaneously appearing turkey vultures that begin to circle you expectantly when they sense you are nearing your demise. And while there are areas in Arizona that resemble that mental image, this state is actually one of the most diverse locations I’ve had the privilege to experience. For those of you stubbornly holding onto the idea of Arizona as a barren desert, I submit the following:
Pictured: Arizona Not Pictured: Desert Habitat
Arizona is actually quite a wet place depending on what watershed you find yourself in, and over this block my eyes were opened to the wonderful riparian communities that call this state home. Our journey started at the Hassayampa River Preserve, a Nature Conservancy site dedicated to providing habitat for many Riparian species of the Basin & Range province of Arizona where the ecology has been heavily impacted by Phoenix and its perpetual sprawl.
We entered a lushly vegetated reserve with an abundance of ecological diversity and a fair amount of water flow year round, as well as multiple standing pools of water that were providing homes for migrating birds passing through the area. This place seemed to be a desert oasis, pristine aside from a few educational placards and the trails running through it.
Hassayampa River Preserve
Our class was asked to look for and identify “signs of change,” and with no other instruction we set off in pairs and tried to fathom as many unnatural features we could in different locales around the area.
We found introduced and invasive species, the trails and educational placards, some alteration of the stream channel, and the educational center that had been built on the grounds. What none of us realized was that this riparian reserve had been a paved RV and ATV recreation area only 40 years prior. At that time, it was filled with trash, human waste, and heavily impacted by Jeep and ATV races through the creek channels. The vast majority of vegetation that we saw, and the “pristine” conditions that we observed were a result of efforts put into revegetating and revitalizing this place on behalf of the biotic communities that lived here previously and the shrinking riparian communities elsewhere around the state. At that moment, I was struck with no small measure of hope for our natural world to heal itself with the aid of humans. This would be a feeling that I experienced many times over the block, as we visited many locations that at one time had been ecologically decimated by human use, and now harbor species that have moved from other areas impacted by humans.
Through our scientific surveys of many of these areas, I came to a deeper understanding of the plight many wetlands face here in Arizona and around the world.