AZTEC — With funding from the state's Youth Conservation Corps program, Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps cadets from Aztec High School have been earning full-time pay while picking up special skills as they work to improve the Aztec Ruins National Monument.
The Youth Conservation Corps program is an independent commission, administered through the state's Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, that employs young people in public projects around the state. Corps projects are designed to teach conservation of natural resources while providing lasting value to communities where the work is performed. Projects can range from monitoring forest restoration to wildlife habitat improvement to historic adobe reconstruction.
This year, the Corps' 41 projects — with funding of $4.3 million statewide — include the one that employs 30 the cadets at the Aztec Ruins.
Retired Army Col. Berris Samples, Aztec High's senior JROTC instructor, leads the cadets — on Saturdays from February until the end of the school year and five days a week during the summer months — to the park to complete service projects as unique as the park itself.
Samples said that in the past three years, the Corps has provided nearly $250,000 to hire cadets to work on improvements at the World Heritage site, including $80,000 this year.
"We have a lot of work to do over there. From wall restoration, painting, trails and picnic area shade structure construction, planting native vegetation and clearing invasive species, erecting 1,700 feet of fencing, (working) in the park's garden and along Ruins Road, our cadets are out there making things happen," Samples said. "It's pretty cool."
One of the first projects cadets began developing was a 75-by-50-foot heritage garden on the park's south end beside the visitor center and picnic area under the supervision and guidance of Dana Hawkins, Aztec Ruins archaeological technician. The idea of incorporating a working garden that could help visitors interpret and make connections with past Puebloan cultural practices was an idea that Hawkins said had been tossed around for years.
"It's striking a balance between the process of growing crops and learning agricultural technologies that were practiced 1,000 years ago by ancestral Puebloans who occupied the Aztec Ruins site and operated in the Four Corners region," Hawkins said. "I like to give the cadets a broad-based history of food production and the ecology of the region. I like to study how people provide for themselves. The garden was a way to be able to live this out and see what there is to know about earlier practices up to the present."
Each year, Hawkins leads cadets in crews of five or six to mulch, plant and harvest the garden using seeds from the Hopi tribe and modified sticks instead of shovels. They water with gourds grown, dried and carved on site. Until a complete irrigation project is completed this summer, the cadets are hauling the water from the Animas River a half-mile away like the Puebloans did. This year, cadets will plant more than 20 varieties of crops, including Navajo Robin's Egg flour, Hopi Black Dye sunflowers, Magdalena Big Cheese squash, Zia Pueblo canteen-gourd, Tohono O'oodham domesticated Devil's Claw and Hopi short staple cotton.
Harvests from the garden are shared among the cadets and volunteers at the garden. Last October, the garden provided more than 200 pounds of Acoma pumpkin to ECHO Food Bank in Farmington, Hawkins said.
Sixteen-year-old Michael Martinez has worked two years at the Aztec Ruins as a JROTC cadet. He helped build the fencing along the southern perimeter of the park, planted Buffalo grass and mulched the garden last summer.
"I get to tell my kids that I helped build that," Martinez said. "There's a lot of pride that goes into the work we do there."
James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and email@example.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.