Land, Water, People: Connecting to the land through volunteering

I moved to the San Luis Valley because of the land. The flat valley bottom filled with potato fields and barley, the volcanic cliff bands at the edge of the San Juan Mountains, the vertical conglomerate of the Sangre de Cristos, the wetlands and refuges, the space. I love living in a place dominated by landscape rather than people, a place where my daily existence could be framed by a geology so much larger than me, a place where the earth is so plainly bigger than humans.

What enabled me to move here was the opportunity to work as the Volunteer and Partnership Coordinator for the Rio Grande National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management San Luis Valley Field Office through a partnership with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado. I moved here to make a home where people are linked to place, and my job is to help create these linkages and support them on our public lands.

The day-to-day reality of managing a public lands volunteer program is multi-faceted and diverse, but the underlying goal is to facilitate the connection of people to place through stewardship. Volunteers contribute to the care of their public lands in and around the valley in countless ways: by building and repairing trails; removing or repairing broken-down fencing; pulling invasive plants; planting native shrubs, grasses and trees; collecting valuable data through citizen science; and much more. Underneath all of these tasks is the commonality that those doing the work are giving their time, energy and efforts freely; intentionally offering something of themselves towards the places that are bigger than we are.

People that volunteer on public lands are more than volunteers; they are stewards. The word ‘steward’ historically meant the manager of a household. The act of stewardship is defined as the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care. And though the public lands in the Upper Rio Grande Basin are overseen by agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these are public lands. They are our common lands, shared, and they link us together into community with place.

Sixty-nine years ago, Aldo Leopold, the conservationist, writer and long-time U.S. Forest Service employee, wrote about this community in his landmark book A Sand County Almanac. In his essay ‘The Land Ethic,’ Leopold wrote, “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts…. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” 

When a person volunteers on public lands, freely offering their energy and care to the land, they are stewards who actively participate in the interdependent community about which Leopold wrote. Volunteer land stewards connect with our public lands, and when they build a sustainable trail or restore wildlife habitat, they are tying themselves into the broader community of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. Volunteer land stewards give something back to the land, but often the land gives something back to them as well. In this land community, there is ample reciprocity. We can improve opportunities for sustainable recreation in places we love, prevent erosion on stream banks, clear downed barbed-wire fences that pose threats to migrating wildlife, or make observations of plant and animal conditions all in an effort to help be a caretaker of our homelands. But the land can also reward us in return by revealing its beauties, wonders, surprises, peace and tranquility, openness, and freedom to us.

When you engage as a San Luis Valley steward, you acknowledge and take part in your community: a land community. A vast, beautiful, varied and rugged land that is bigger than we are. The author Terry Tempest Williams once wrote, “Each of us harbors a homeland, a landscape we naturally comprehend. By understanding the dependability of a place, we can anchor ourselves as trees.” When you engage as a volunteer land steward you root yourself to your home.

Sally Wier is the Volunteer Partnership Coordinator for the San Luis Valley with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, the Rio Grande National Forest and the BLM SLV Field Office. She can be reached at [email protected].