'Alt Spring Break': Nevada students choose volunteer service in the desert over sun and surf at the beach

Opting for an alternative to more well-know spring break activities, 22 students from Nevada colleges trekked into the desert as conservation volunteers at  Pahranagat and Desert National Wildlife Refuges. The projects included restoring an old vehicle route in the Arrow Canyon Wilderness, removing tree cages from mature willow trees in the Black Canyon area of Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, and extending a post and cable fence in Desert National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Friends of Nevada Wilderness

“There were a lot of days where I looked at the tasks and thought, ‘there’s no way I’m going to be able to do any of this’…but then I did and it was awesome.”

– Carolyn Marcu, second-year volunteer,
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

By Barbara Michel
June 6, 2018

Students have many options when planning for their spring break. While some choose a week of sun and surf at the beach, 22 Nevada college students recently opted for a week of service in the desert by participating in an alternative to more well-know spring break activities.

Aptly named the Alternative Spring Break, the annual outdoor event offers students a way to connect with the rich environmental heritage of southern Nevada’s public lands.

On their first day of spring break, student volunteers gather their initial orientation for 6 days of service projects at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Photo courtesy of Friends of Nevada Wilderness

As part of the volunteer experience coordinated by the Friends of Nevada Wilderness, the students spent six days in March performing service projects to improve access to public lands and creating ecosystem benefits. The desert oasis of Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge was used as the group’s home base as it traveled around the region completing their volunteer projects.

The projects included restoring an old vehicle route in the Arrow Canyon Wilderness, removing tree cages from mature willow trees in the Black Canyon area of Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, and extending a post and cable fence in Desert National Wildlife Refuge.

As the largest national wildlife refuge outside of Alaska, the sheer size of Desert can be overwhelming. The refuge is so large that it encompasses six major mountain ranges with plenty of opportunities for work.

“The program has been outstanding for us,” said refuge manager Amy Sprunger.

An additional benefit to the Alternative Spring Break program for the volunteers was the opportunity to connect with the rich environmental and cultural heritage of southern Nevada’s public lands. Photo courtesy of Friends of Nevada Wilderness

“The results have always been productive. They do a massive amount of work. With our limited staff and volunteers out at the refuges, we can’t always get to everything that needs to be done.”

Stephanie Vosburgh, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas Environmental Science major, said her favorite project of Alternative Spring Break 2018 was extending the post barrier at Desert.

“I liked building the barrier so cars couldn’t drive on that fragile land up to the sand dunes,” she said. “And now, knowing all the work that goes into digging fence holes, I’ll have a new appreciation for it when I see fences in other places.”

Overall, Vosburgh and the other spring break volunteers installed 31 posts at the Desert Sand Dunes trailhead, extending the existing barrier by 160 feet. The students also restored 2,646 square feet of fragile land that was damaged from vehicles driving off-road to the sand dunes.

Student volunteers install and extend a fence along a refuge road. "Without volunteers, our staff might literally never get to accomplish those tasks," said refuge manager Amy Sprunger. Photo courtesy of Friends of Nevada Wilderness

“While fragile desert landscapes cannot be repaired overnight, the student’s work to restore and protect the unique ecosystem is important to preserve for future generations,” said Sprunger.

Back at Pahranagat, the group removed approximately 480 tree cages from mature willow trees and other native plants in the Black Canyon area and restored 13,740 square feet of land damage in the Arrow Canyon Wilderness.

“There were a lot of days where I looked at the tasks and thought, ‘there’s no way I’m going to be able to do any of this’…but then I did and it was awesome,” said second-year ASB volunteer Carolyn Marcu, an English major at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Grace Larsen, Southern Nevada Stewardship Manager for Friends of Nevada Wilderness, has been leading Alternative Spring Break groups for the past four years. Usually, recruitment is done through classroom presentations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada State College and the College of Southern Nevada.

The Friends of Nevada Wilderness also post recruitment signs at all three campuses.

Alt Spring Break volunteers receive their day's work assignments. “I’m really impressed with this year’s group,” said Grace Larsen, Southern Nevada Stewardship Manager for Friends of Nevada Wilderness. “We had 22 students sign up, which is by far the most we’ve ever had." Photo courtesy of Friends of Nevada Wilderness

“I’m really impressed with this year’s group,” Larsen said. “We had 22 students sign up, which is by far the most we’ve ever had. We had eight returning volunteers this year. Word of mouth has been super helpful for growing the program.”

A senior geology major at UNLV, Peter Sbraccia, was one of the returnees. He signed up on a whim during his first semester of school four years ago because an Alternative Spring Break recruitment table on campus appealed to him. Since then, he’s come every year.

“That first trip was my first ever stewardship experience, and now I do them all the time. This was a good way for me to start getting involved,” he said.

Sbraccia explained that the spring break experience is designed to include everyone from avid outdoor adventurers to first time campers. “They take really good care of us here,” said Sbraccia. “It’s a good opportunity for people who have never camped at all. They make it really accessible. They provide tents, sleeping bags, whatever gear you need. All the food is great. And it’s all free.”

The trip is fully financed by Barrick, a large mining company with ties to Nevada. The company has financed the trip for the last four years, including supplying gear rentals, food and equipment. Barrick also funds many other nonprofits and stewardship projects in southern Nevada.

"Alt Spring Breakers" relax at the end of a busy work day at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Friends of Nevada Wilderness

Deanna Chea, a biotechnology student, had never been camping before this trip. “I couldn’t have done this without the donations,” said Chea. “I was really excited to come. A lot of the other alternative breaks are, like, $250. That’s next semester’s books!”

There is still a lot of work to be done, said Sprunger. “We still need to get directional signage up around the dry lake, and there’s all kinds of trail work that needs to be done. Without volunteers, staff might literally never get to accomplish those tasks.”

These spring break students are not alone in wanting to lend a hand on the nation’s national wildlife refuges. Throughout the country, refuges rely on volunteers for many day-to-day operations, special events, and wildlife and habitat management.

In the fiscal year 2017, volunteers in the National Wildlife Refuge System worked a jaw-dropping 1,331,198 hours to support their public lands. In southern Nevada, national wildlife refuge volunteers put in 13,452 hours of labor. Volunteers such as the Alternative Spring Break students are essential to fulfil refuge goals. Meeting refuge goals to expand access or protect sensitive habitats is not the only benefit of the volunteering.

For many volunteers like Marcu, getting your hands dirty on a refuge is the participant’s first step into conservation. “I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist, but didn’t know how to get involved until I heard about this trip,” said the young English major.

Volunteer Peter Sbraccia returns from restoring a vehicle incursion leading to sand dunes below the Sheep Mountains on Desert National Wildlife Refuge. Sbraccia signed up on a whim during his first semester of school four years ago because the Alternative Spring Break recruitment on campus appealed to him. Since then, he’s come every year. “That first trip was my first ever stewardship experience, and now I do them all the time. This was a good way for me to start getting involved,” he said. Photo courtesy of Friends of Nevada Wilderness

The "Alt Spring Breakers" pose for a group photo on the dunes at Desert National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Friends of Nevada Wilderness

Students and staff gather in camp on Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge at the close of Alternative Spring Break. Photo courtesy of Friends of Nevada Wilderness

 

The Friends of Nevada Wilderness organize and lead trips year-round to help restore and protect wilderness areas and public lands in Nevada. They offer day trips, weekend getaways and outreach opportunities to help spread the word about wilderness. Check out their calendar of events at: www.nevadawilderness.org/calendar_of_events. If you’re interested in getting involved in next year’s Alternative Spring Break, contact Grace Larsen at (702) 515-5417 or grace@nevadawilderness.org.