On a crisp fall morning in Arizona, the Salt River runs silently above Mesa's Granite Reef dam, past banks dotted with cottonwoods and willows. Birds flutter in the branches. Three wild horses munch on what's left of late-summer grasses.
The bucolic scene is interrupted intermittently by the thrum of a gas-powered auger and people's voices. Working with the Tonto National Forest and a Northern Arizona University revegetation program, this group will spend the next two weeks tucking some 2,500 coyote willow seedlings in the auger's two-foot deep holes, replanting a swath of land burned in the 2017 Cactus Fire.
The team, a kind of modern-day Civilian Conservation Corps, isn't just focused on revegetating burn areas in Arizona. The team is part of Natural Restorations, an Arizona-based support group for military veterans, which gets them out into nature to bond, decompress and accomplish the restoration of Arizona's natural lands. In addition to revegetation, the group also cleans up trash and removes graffiti from the state's wilderness areas.
"I enjoy the work," says one team member, an Air Force veteran who had been deployed to Afghanistan. "It helps me to be around people who understand my experience."
Adds another, an Army vet who also served in Afghanistan: "As a wounded combat veteran, it's hard to transition back into civilian life. Working with this group helps me lead by example and gives me a sense of accomplishment."
Natural Restorations' origins
Natural Restorations began as a passion project in 2015 by Queen Creek residents Nicole and Justin Corey, both outdoor enthusiasts. The impetus was Justin's best friend, Derek, an Army ranger who was struggling to return to civilian life after several tours of duty in the Middle East.
"Justin took Derek out camping to try to get his mind off things," Nicole explains. "They talked about life plans, with Justin wanting to do something with restoring outdoor recreation sites, and Derek just focusing on a return to the military."
When a storm blew through their campsite, the two friends helped clean up the trash and debris in the aftermath.
“Derek told Justin that the work made him stop thinking about the war,” Nicole recalls, "and Justin had a light-bulb moment about starting Natural Restorations to help veterans—and to make a meaningful difference on public lands."
Over the years, Natural Restorations has put together a team that has included up to 15 veterans, paid to do contract work on recreation and wilderness sites all over Arizona. The nonprofit is funded by grants, as well as corporate and individual donations.
"We get our projects through land-management agencies," says Nicole, "and also get tips from hikers and other recreation groups."
All the cleanup and restoration work is done with permission from the various land agencies and vetted by specialists, such as archaeologists and biologists. Some of the work is not without humor, Nicole points out.
"We found a long-abandoned tent in Flagstaff that was decked out with a fancy chandelier and an elaborate shelving system. Near Florence, we kept finding graffiti from one girl, declaring her love every time she got a new boyfriend—and there were many."
Enlisting the community to volunteer
While the team of veterans does most of the work throughout the year, the organization also hosts volunteer events, like cleanups of OHV areas on the Tonto National Forest and several Lower Salt River recreation sites.
Scores—sometimes hundreds—of volunteers, young and old, show up for the day’s work.
To make things more fun, Nicole and Justin have added plogging (a combination of picking up trash and exercising) to some of the volunteer events, asking fitness instructor Sarah Williams from Desert Paddleboards to lead the group in lunges, squats and tricep dips while filling up bags with garbage.
Restoring Arizona's lands and building bonds
With the dedicated team and the help of volunteers, the group's efforts are visible. More than 1 million pounds of trash have been removed from outdoor recreation sites across the state, says Nicole, along with 36,000 square feet of graffiti removed from rocks and boulders, and close to 900 tires removed and recycled.
But perhaps the most important result for Natural Restorations is the lifelong sense of stewardship for the land formed among the veterans on the team, and the bonds they've created while working together in nature.
"These guys become friends," Nicole observes. "They have so many shared experiences and they understand each other. The saplings we planted today will grow to be mature trees in a few years. Our veteran team members can come back to this site with their families and say, 'I did that.'"
Join an Event
Natural Restorations hosts year-round cleanup events around the state. To learn more, or to sign up for a volunteer event, visit naturalrestorations.org.