Building Fences - and Character - Page 2

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An outsider might wonder what brought us here, and why we chose to spend vacation time and a couple hundred dollars to perform hard labor for a herd of wayward (phantom!) cows. And what about the amenities, or lack thereof? The latrine was a knee-deep trench, a couple of logs, a white toilet seat, a bucket of lime powder and a panoramic view of the mountains. The shower: a tarp and a bag of sun-warmed water hung from a tree limb. The dining area: two cowboy cooks, a couple of picnic tables, three giant tubs of heated water. Accommodations were tents or the back seats of trucks.

"We are living in a remote location, with primitive conditions and doing manual labor," said Susan, who, when not volunteering, works construction in California. "Your friends will think you are crazy to pay for the privilege."
When asked on the first day why we came here and what we hoped to accomplish, most cited the need to give back to Mother Nature, to contribute more than cash, to partake in an adventure, to see the stars.

"I believe the Earth is a community, and one day it will ask me, 'What did you do to help?' and I don't want to say I just shoveled dirt in Louisiana," said Bob Kelso, a math professor at Louisiana State University and veteran Sierra Clubber.

For one New York investment banker, it was to heed the call of his conscience.

"On Wall Street, it was me, me, me or the client, client, client. I am a total city boy. I shower every day and am never 20 feet from a plumbing pipe. It was a self-centered existence," explained Rajesh Krishnan, who quit his job, dyed his hair green and signed up for three consecutive Sierra Club service trips. "But this gave me a chance to offset what humans degrade through their existence, to put things more in favor of the environment, to save Mother Earth."

Despite the altruistic goals, the barbed-wire project was a contentious issue. Most Sierra Club projects are cut-and-dried conservation: preventing erosion on an old Grand Canyon mining trail, tracking the mating calls of Southwest birds, stamping out invasive thistles. But barbed wire, also called "devil's rope," and the work of the Sierra Club sparked controversy. A waiter at nearby Ruby's Inn, at the foot of Bryce Canyon, advised against driving cars adorned with Sierra Club stickers. Monte Bowthorpe, the cowboy cook from Moab, Utah, said he almost declined when first asked to work for a Sierra Club outing.

The conflict prevails in Western lands protected by the government, mainly national parks and monuments, and spans decades. The struggle pits the ranchers, who wish to graze their cows unfettered, against the government, which hopes to maintain livestock-free zones for the million-plus annual tourists. Yet as more land is usurped for recreational use, more restrictions are placed on the ranchers, thus perpetuating a showdown of sorts. The locals tend to group environmentalists with government forces, viewing them as unwanted intruders. Erecting barbed wire also made many of us uncomfortable. The fence divides land that would otherwise be a natural whole. We also happened upon an animal's skeletal remains, raising the issue of whether our work was maiming or even killing the wildlife. Finally, I wondered where the cows were.

But after dining on elk and egg noodles, Cass and Susan reassured us that we were performing a good deed. That for the ranchers, the fence would save them from hefty fines and from chasing down bovines inside the park. That for the deer and elk, the fence would protect them from hunters, who cannot shoot on park property. (The animals seek out the fence, they told us. Deer jump over it, elk barrel through it and cows stand dumbly beside it.) That for environmentalists, it would protect the indigenous vegetation from "exotics" expelled by cows. And that for Sierra Club volunteers, our help, no matter how slight it seemed, would have an enormous payoff for future generations by preserving both traditional ranching and public uses of the land. It's the sum of the smallest parts—hauling logs, digging holes, rolling wire, clearing branches—that matters, he explained. And at last count, it added up to almost 900 yards of fence.

"You all got here," said Susan, when asked how she rates success. "Whatever else we can complete is sufficient, no matter how menial."

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