Reflections on the 14th National Scenic and Historic Trails Conference in Tucson
by Michael Johnson, Cartographer/GIS Intern, Southwest Conservation Corps
For the past year I’ve been interning with Ron Morfin, the Recreation and Wilderness Lead of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Field Office in Yuma, on an inventory of the Anza Trail. Since the Partnership for the National Trails System chose Tucson as the site of its 14th National Scenic and Historic Trails Conference November 3-6, 2013, we had a chance to share our work and meet with trail enthusiasts from around the country.
Personally, I was on the hunt for the elusive full-time government position. I felt I may have a fighting chance with two years of internship experience under my belt with both BLM and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. I had heard there would be many officials in attendance that would be good to add to my network of contacts for future employment opportunities.
A light dinner was provided at the welcoming banquet the first night. The 15 Trail Apprentices introduced themselves; the Trail Apprentice scholarship brings advocates aged 18-25 to the conference to provide the perspective of the next generation of trail stewards. Some were students, some had recently finished long-distance hikes, and some were interning for one of the agencies in the Department of the Interior.
Jonathan Rothschild, Tucson’s mayor, spoke about the wonderful trails in the area and Tucson’s long history; he also asked us to spend money downtown (for tax purposes, of course) when we went to the All Souls Procession. A local band played music for the welcoming banquet. They were a family band comprised of five generations of musicians, all Native people from the area. One individual from the crowd started dancing alone on the dance floor. By the last song, all the Trail Apprentices got up to join in the dance.
The conference’s opening ceremony began the next morning with a Native drum circle and a color guard of Native American military veterans. Wendsler Nosie, Tribal Councilman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, shared his efforts to speak with Congress about working with Tribes to protect sacred sites on federally managed lands.
Two of the common themes of the introductory talks were the importance of recording the history and stories of the National Trail System and the role of stewardship that the government agencies have accepted in managing these trails.
The following day was filled with Mobile Workshops, including one on the Anza Trail. I chose the workshop about Trail Inventory at Catalina State Park. The workshop was broken into four portions with experts from the different federal agencies: cultural and historical resources, visual resource management, recreation and travel management, and vegetation and wildlife.
Rain began to fall during the follow-up discussion at the end of the workshop. It continued to rain during the ride to the Western National Parks Association, where we learned about the partnerships being made in the trails world and the direction things are headed in the future. The visitor center made for a great place to stop and compare stories with other conference attendees about the day’s workshops. Most everyone was in a great mood that made for easy networking.
The next days were filled with presentations by people from federal agencies, Tribes, universities, trail groups, and private contractors working for the trails. My favorite part of the presentations were the question and answer sessions which led to very interesting discussions.
The final day included a panel discussion by the Trail Apprentices. Topics concerned the current state of jobs for young people in the trail system, specifically the federal agencies that manage the trails. The apprentices felt disheartened by the expectations placed upon them to land a full-time government position after working as a volunteer or intern. They expressed how the hiring process in the federal government is very different today in a climate of budget cuts.
Young people are expected to work for free as volunteers or as interns with borderline subsistence wages for several years before having enough experience to compete for full-time positions. Many said they still needed their parents’ financial support despite working full-time internships.
Many of the federal employees in attendance expressed similar concerns regarding the current job prospects for young people in the trails system. Others explained how they started at an entry level out of school and had to work several years before moving up in the government. I have yet to make it into the round of ‘most qualified’ for the 100+ entry-level positions for which I have applied.
The close-out banquet lived up to the standards of the opening banquet. A mariachi band of local schoolchildren performed traditional Spanish music by the night lights of the outdoor terrace. An auction was held after dinner to raise money for the different volunteer trails groups. Awards were handed out to some of the most deserving members of the trail community for their years (or decades) of hard work dedicated to the National Trails System.
After the final awards were presented, the conference was officially finished. Everybody said their final good-byes of the evening and hit the long, dusty trail back home.