The sun breaks over desert mountains to the east of town. In the University of Nevada, Reno’s north parking lot, a crowd gathers. Gradually, an oblong circle forms around a few men dressed in blue jeans and flip-flops. Moments pass and the crowd grows quiet. One of the men pulls a crumpled slip of paper from his pocket, then recites a line made famous by Edward Abbey: “There are no vacant lots in nature.” With these words, the circle becomes a stream moving toward trucks and vans bulging with backpacks, hand tools, and water coolers. Watching these young men and women climb into the vehicles, you sense that this diverse group hasn’t congregated so early to go sightseeing. The tools and packs, the scuffed work boots and Carhartts, the dawn departure, all hint at hard, physical work and long hours. As trucks and vans pull out of the lot the men wave to the crews that form the backbone of the Great Basin Institute, an eleven-year old environmental conservation organization based at UNR.
Most of these 10-12-member crews include small groups of international volunteers, hailing from around the globe. It’s not their dirt-brown tees and stained Carhartts—the standard uniform of conservation crews everywhere—that give them away. But, listen in and you’ll hear a distinct accent. Maybe it’s British. Maybe it’s German or Korean, or Spanish or Irish. Members of the International Conservation Volunteer Exchange (ICVE), most of these foreign volunteers spend seven to fourteen weeks in Nevada, living in dorm rooms or a nondescript brick house along Virginia Street, and spike camping in the wilderness they’re here to conserve. They’ll work in Nevada’s most beautiful and, in some instances, isolated places. Since 2004, the ICVE has hosted over 500 alumni from 44 countries. In the summer of 2009, alone, the program hosted 105 volunteers from 17 countries. Together, they contributed more than 25,300 volunteer hours to Nevada’s wild lands.
From May through August, ICVE members teamed up with 175 AmeriCorps members from around the United States, rounding out the Nevada Conservation Corps (NCC). The workhorses of the Institute, each year NCC members contribute thousands of hours of skilled labor to protect environmentally sensitive areas throughout the American West. The NCC serves in the Lake Tahoe Basin, the Truckee River watershed, at Sand Mountain near Fallon, at Hickison Summit near Austin, and the Jarbidge Wilderness near the Idaho border. This past summer, alone, the NCC built or maintained 197 miles of wilderness trails, restored 15 miles of rivers, streams, beaches, and fish habitats, removed hazardous fuels from 653 acres of public land, and removed invasive plant species from 3,947 acres throughout Nevada.
While all Nevada Conservation Corps members invest a significant amount of time and energy to serve, ICVE members sacrifice more than just sweat and regular showers to participate in the program. In addition to paying for the long, two-way flight, international volunteers forfeit many everyday luxuries, such as normal beds to sleep in, privacy, and Starbucks, all to work tirelessly on Nevada’s public lands. ICVE members typically spend four to eight days at a time “spiking” in the Nevada wilderness—living with their crews in tents, cooking group meals using a propane stove on a makeshift table, and abiding by “Leave No Trace” practices (more often than not, toilets are nonexistent in the field).
Why, you might ask, would anyone voluntarily commit to a program that demands so many long days and material sacrifices? Time and again ICVE volunteers respond to this question, as if on cue, with the words, “You form new friendships,” and “It’s the experience of a lifetime.” While nobody denies the work is hard—very hard—few among the program’s 500 plus international volunteers, to date, would trade the sweat and blisters earned in the field for any other experience. As current ICVE member Darrell Rice, from England, puts it, “Being part of the Nevada Conservation Corps and ICVE has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. From the moment I became an international volunteer and right up to the present, I’ve met many new friends, seen some amazing places, and have grown as a person.” Darrell joined the ICVE back in 2007 and is now a crew supervisor in his third term with ICVE, this time around on a year-long internship. Darrell adds, “I would recommend the NCC and ICVE programs to anyone who wants to be part of something bigger than themselves. They will take away an experience they will truly never forget.”
This year also marked the inaugural year of ICVE-Mexico, inspired by the Great Basin Institute’s leadership of restoration and research field courses near Manzanilla, on Mexico’s central Pacific coast. The ongoing restoration work explores the issues and problems of Mexico’s coastal environment. With support from the University of Nevada, Reno’s Office of International Students and Scholars, and the Universidad de Guadalajara, the ICVE brought sixteen marine biology students to Nevada on internships during the latter half of the 2009 field season. Ana Nafarrate, an intern and crew leader from Guadalajara, says her time here has been “exciting and very eye-opening.” She adds, “Working in threatened places has been very rewarding.” By partnering with foreign universities, such as the Universidad de Guadalajara and University College Cork in Ireland, the ICVE hopes to expand the educational aspect of the program.
It’s now the end of October. The sun sets, slipping behind the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The same few men, still wearing flip-flops, bucking the chill in the air, stand in UNR’s northern parking lot awaiting crews due back from their final tour in the field. The light fades. Finally, a string of dust-covered trucks pulls into the lot. Crews in dirt-stained Carhartts pile out of vehicles and begin unloading backpacks and tools. After a long season in the field, the time has come for everyone to decompress. NCC and ICVE members prepare to leave, one last time, the lot they’ve come to know so well. Watching faces, you can’t help but see the mixed emotions each and every person is trying to contain. You can read excitement—a chapter is closing and new journeys beckon, just over the horizon. But you can also see twinges of melancholy. This international family must now say their goodbyes. At length, they do. As the men wave “So long!” to groups of people drifting away, some in cars, others on foot, you’re certain of just one thing. Each person is leaving with memories of this life changing experience, memories that will last a lifetime.