Irrigation ditches created by homesteaders in the late 1800s are being dug up by non-profit service provider American Conservation Experience Mountian West (ACE) in the campgrounds of Zion National Park.
Of the six historic ditches, four are National Historic Places, and most are underground, covered with dirt and debris from the years.
“Zion is in the forever business,” park spokesman Jonathan Shafer said on-site on Tuesday. “So what we want to do here is preserve this place so that people can enjoy it today and long into the future.”
For the homesteaders, pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the ditches were a vital artery helping them survive in the arid desert and were something they learned from the Southern Paiute Tribe, who already had ditches in the area, Rebecca Finnigan, environmental compliance archivist for the park with the Great Basin Institute, said.
ACE, which the park contracted with for this project, is the modern version of the similar New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which built quite a lot of the park.
Eight crew members from all over the country came to this section of southern Utah for eight straight 10-hour days to restore a piece of history, revive the environment and gain experience for a career in the outdoors.
“Getting them to come to Zion gives them the opportunity to experience the actual cultural resources that are here, as well as protect them,” Kody Crawford, operations manager of partner experience and field operations for ACE said.
Many crew members said they had never been to a national park before and were excited to camp out in the nation’s second-most popular national park. But one of the most important parts for them was being able to get on the ground floor of a career in the outdoor industry.
“For many of them, it’s one of the first questions they ask in their job interview, ‘do I get to go to Zion?’ And so we love to tell them Zion’s right here, is ready for you,” saidHannah Knapp, ACE operations manager of member experience and outreach.
The ditches are named the Crawford, Oak Creek, Phantom, Pine Creek, Flanigan and the Springdale Irrigation Ditches and run along the Virgin River near the South Entrance of the park.
Then-president of the church, Brigham Young, told pioneers to try to find land to farm in southern Utah in the 1850s and 60s as supplies were scarce with the ongoing Civil War, Finnigan said.
“When the snow melts in the springtime there’s plenty of water coming, but it only goes down the river canal and so they built all these irrigation ditches to attempt to farm land,” she said.
The Flanigan ditch, built by Thomas Flanigan and his family, was used by his descendants living in Springdale until it was sold to the National Park Service in 1931.
Unearthed ditches can be seen in the Watchman and South Campgrounds, which are consistently full of visitors throughout the busy season. Last year, Zion saw a record-breaking 5 million visitors.
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“We’ve been really near the visitors a lot with where the ditches are and it’s cool to hear different languages and accents of people that are coming around the world to be here in this park, and we have the ability to possibly impact it, Crew member Danny Radi of Wisconsin said.
It’s unclear if the ditches were built upon the original Paiute ditches, but park officials said they have begun communicating with the tribe about the findings, returning tribal artifacts if any are found.
“It’s definitely a legacy and I feel like with what we’re doing as the caretakers with that legacy is upholding that history, and history of the Southern Paiutes, as well as the history of today with helping the current caretaker Tim McCoy,” said Ryan Welleford, a crew member from Kentucky.
O’Livia McIntosh, a crew member from New York, said that while this work is mainly environmental, it is also historical and the park and crew are trying to learn the history of the area as they go.
“They’re really taking those steps forward to try and bring Indigenous people’s stories here to Zion because it’s a combination of a lot of stories, a lot of history, and they’re doing a lot of work to make sure that those are told properly,” she said.
Being a part of that history is also built into ACE as it is so similar to the CCC.
“There’s a lot of connection between ACE and the CCC had a huge impact on Zion as well as just westward expansion as a whole,” Radi said. “So I’m really grateful to be a part of that and helping the country to continue to develop, even though it feels developed.”
The crew and ACE said this is sustainable work that contributes positively to impact the environment for years to come, no matter how small.
“We are having a net positive effect because we’re providing water to this part of the main canyon which keeps things green and helps the trees grow,” crew member Bella Leopardo of California said. “So even if it is on a small scale, we are kind of helping to counteract the beautification that’s happening sort of all over.”
Zion is currently looking for this crew’s replacements with the Traditional Trades Apprenticeship Program and they have a vacancy for an Interpretive Media Technician with the Great Basin Institute.
“Both programs will build on the park’s legacy of public service, help teach new skills, and contribute to the common good,” Shafer said.
K. Sophie Will is the National Parks Reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News through the Report for America initiative by The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter at @Kosophiewill or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donate to Report for America to support her work here.