During 2020, record numbers of visitors came to Madera Canyon to enjoy the trails, nature and a little time away from all things COVID-19.

Attendance was about 90,000 over 2019, with May, June and July seeing more than a 300 percent increase in visitors. The additional foot traffic further eroded the canyon’s most popular trails.

The non-profit Friends of Madera Canyon, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, this month completed the majority of phase one of a two-phase, grant-funded project to restore two of the canyon’s busiest trails, Old Baldy and the Super Trail. Phase two is set for fall.

The work involves restoring water culverts, narrowing paths and preventing future erosion caused by human activity and the effects of time. Like many of the projects that occur in the canyon, it took multiple organizations and the work of volunteers to make the restoration possible.

Finding the money

Christine Olsenius, chair of the Friends of Madera Canyon Grants Committee, said the canyon was a respite during the pandemic.

“I think we’ve had almost 79,000 people this year and last year at this time it was 130,000,” she said. “People need this place desperately, that’s the importance of public lands, and we are there to help.”

Heightened traffic caused the trails, already in need of restoration, to erode even more and visitors also damaged habitat.

“There was heavy use... a lot of families, little kids, veteran hikers… it got eroded pretty badly,” Olsenius said. “This work is also to keep people on the trails. Sometimes they wander off and don’t realize how they are impacting the habitat so these things are pretty important for erosion control.”

Olsenius began the grant-writing process for the project in December. She said in total, they received a little over $56,000.

“That represents a 50-50 match of non-federal to federal funding,” she said. “It’s a great partnership.”

The Friends received a total of $19,000 from Freeport-McMoRan, Vulcan Materials Company, Country Store White Elephant and the Greater Green Valley Community Foundation. The Friends also put in an additional $9,000 left over from past projects.

The Forest Service made a federal match of funds of $28,000, the first project in the Coronado National Forest to use money from the Great American Outdoors Act, conservation legislation signed into law to support recreation infrastructure in national parks in 2020.

Adam Milnor, Recreation Program Manager, said most of the funds from the act goes to national parks, but the Forest Service gets 15% of the total $900 million a year.

“We’ve always got lots of help to take care of things, but there’s a lot of use, a lot of increasing needs, so we’re trying to tackle a lot of maintenance there,” he said. “We got approval to use some of that American Outdoors funding for trails in the Nogales District and so we helped to match some funds with the Friends to get more done.”

Getting it done

Phase one of the project focused on Old Baldy Trail, which takes hikers to Josephine Saddle and Mount Wrightson.

The work had to be completed from June 1 to 13 to beat the nesting season of local birds as the sounds of machines used for some of the work was disruptive. The trail crew wanted to complete the work before the monsoon caused potentially more erosion.

Friends Vice President David Linn, who is also a member of the Green Valley Recreation Hiking Club, said the wear on the trail has been evident to regulars in the canyon.

“This was a mess. It wasn’t draining. It was eroded. There were trip hazards and this is a major thoroughfare,” he said. “Hundreds do Mount Wrightson every month so it got a lot of use. Now, just as a hiker, it’s a pleasure to go up it.”

Some of the initial work on the trail included cleaning out several water culverts, the basin-like structures that allow water to drain or flow under trails. Making the culverts function better allows the canyon’s springs to flow and will eventually encourage wildlife.

John Titre, recreation staff officer for the Forest Service Nogales Ranger District, is managing the project on the ground and said those culverts had not been cleaned out in 30 years.

“We want to make the wilderness have the character it should and improve its integrity,” he said. “So removing sights and sounds by humans helps with that. Improve the integrity of the wilderness, and we restored a canyon.”

Titre is working with intern Jacob Fogle, 26, and three members of the Student Conservation Association, a nonprofit that places members in conservation and restoration projects across the country, to get the trail work done.

The trail crew all come from different states and have been working together on Madera Canyon’s restoration project for several weeks.

Along with adding final touches to the culverts, the trail crew has been helping to narrow the trails and create paths to divert erosion and water. One of their tasks was to install stone dam wells to help prevent erosion in a steep part of the trail. The task of heavy lifting took about eight hours.

SCA member Maddie Villarreal, 22, is from Idaho. She said the dam wells are there to help with erosion caused by people hiking or running water.

“What this dam does is keep all the dirt here and it allows water to slough off into the stream,” she said. “It helps prevent erosion and is just a really nice step for people to walk up versus the steep trails.”

Fellow SCA member Matthew Mosquera, 22, from Florida said signs of wear on this part of the trail were clear.

“You could see a lot of erosion was taking place right there so we were actually losing a lot of soil right here underneath this step,” he said. “We’re hoping it stays in place with the check dam.”

The crew also used a “gargoyle,” or a stone or rock structure, that holds everything in place.

SCA member Danuel Gonzalez, 25, from Texas, said most of the work can’t be seen by the naked eye.

“It’s all under there but we didn’t want it to be visible,” he said. “This should last for a good number of decades.”

Milnor said using natural techniques and avoiding traditional mortars like concrete is important, especially as the crew works in areas that can’t be accessed by machine.

“It gets a little slower when you don’t have a machine that can go beyond the wilderness boundary,” he said. “So as you get up the rest of this trail, this is more than the eight-hour day on this little stretch. The intent for the wilderness area is to preserve some of those traditional skills.”

What’s next

As part of their training, the SCA members learned about traditional techniques as well as how to identify Native American archaeological finds they may encounter while working on the trails.

“We’ve been busy this month,” Gonzalez said. “We worked with the archaeologist and they trained us in how to do archaeological surveys. We went up and learned dry stacking, where we built a rock wall and learned to use mud and angle rocks to basically position in them the right way without using any concrete.”

Fogle, Titre’s intern who is from Texas, said the learning experience was important for the rest of their work.

“It was really interesting to learn lots of cool things, specifically a lot of the tools — we created ground stone and dry stack rock walls,” he said. “These are useful techniques for sure and it will come in handy on these trails.”

The archaeologist they worked with gave them clearance ahead of the restoration and the Friends and Forest Service will be publishing a pamphlet that explains Native American history in the canyon.

In the fall, the team will resume work after the nesting season ends.

Restoration on trails will continue, as well as terracing on slopes to prevent erosion. The focus will move to the Super Trail.

The Forest Service is also working with the Arizona Trails Association to place eight signs instructing people not to shoot over the Arizona Trail.

Milnor said help from the community and organizations like SCA are critical to these types of preservation efforts, more now than ever.

“The model in 2021 is we have local residents and they are investing their time and energy,” he said. “It’s much more about working together sort of in concert than maybe it was 20, 30, 40 years ago and we get some cool stuff done as a result. The modern approach is more partnering and it’s kind of cool to see the fruits of that.”

The Friends were thankful to the SCA trail crew, Forest Service and all their funding partners for making improvements to the trails possible.

“It gives us hope for the future to have you guys interested in conservation and saving our public lands,” Olsenius said. “We need them so desperately. We found that out for sure last year with the heavy use here.”

To assist Madera Canyon, visit friendsofmaderacanyon.org to donate or learn about volunteer opportunities.

Jamie Verwys | 520-547-9728