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Grad makes trees grow and waters flow

PARKER, Ariz. -- This is the best time of day. The sun is free-falling out of the Arizona sky, exhausted after another full day of flame-throwing 100-degree temperatures that slow-roast the earth below.

Fred Phillips, BS ’95, slowly paddles his canoe through the placid backwater channel of the Colorado River. There is no urgency to his stroke. He has nowhere to go and all evening to get there as he admires the full glory of his six-year labor of love, sweat and tears.

In 1994, as a junior in Purdue’s Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Phillips came to the Colorado River Indian Reservation to help transform a vision into reality.

By the time he left the tribal grounds in October 1999 to start his own consulting business in northern Arizona, Phillips had helped restore 250 acres of cottonwood and willow trees and 600 acres of wetland and aquatic habitat along the river, enhancing God’s matchless beauty by creating the 1,042-acre Ahakhav Tribal Preserve.

On this 2.5-mile stretch of placid Colorado River backwater about 140 miles west of Phoenix, the sight of the canoe draws the curiosity of a sandhill crane fishing the reedy banks. Nearby, beavers stop tail-slapping the water, and coots curiously eyeball the passing canoeist as they dart in and out of the safety net of cattails.

Over his shoulder, the sun begins to duck behind the mountains. In its wake, the arid desert sky turns from gold to deep blue.

As sunsets go, it’s two-for-one time on the water. The glorious show above is doubled below by its own reflection, dancing across the small wake of the canoe.

It is difficult, at any price, to improve on what Mother Nature has provided for free. But that is what Phillips has done, generating and spending more than $5 million in grant money to create the preserve, which had become overrun by non-native salt cedar. The oxygen-depleted wetlands sustained little significant life beyond the 10-foot cattails that rose out of the mud and into the sky.

This is not the roaring Colorado River of Grand Canyon fame with boulders as big as subdivisions and white water as fast and fearless Dale Earnhardt. This is downstream, where the river has been dammed up and levee down to quietly nurse all who draw from it, plants and people alike.

The revegetation project, which to date has included planting some 30,000 trees over a 250-acre tract, was the vision of Dennis Patch, a Colorado River Indian Tribes council member. Patch wanted a preserve full of the woodlands and wetlands he remembered from childhood, before the needs of farmers and homeowners changed the flow of the Colorado.

In 1994, when Patch started the project, Fred Phillips was an under-achieving junior in landscape architecture at Purdue. He heard there might be a summer job in Arizona working on a restoration project.

He had nearly been bounced from the architecture program the year before because he had difficulty applying himself to the curriculum until he came under the wing of Bernie Dahl, assistant professor of landscape architecture. Dahl opened Phillips’ eyes to a nontraditional approach to landscape architecture, one that is environment-based.

"I was an idiot for a year-and-a-half," Phillips says bluntly. "I wasn’t a bad student, I just wasn’t committed."

But working on the project that summer, making $8 an hour, lit a fire under Phillips that burned hotter than the Arizona desert itself. And it burned white-hot for the better part of six years.

"That was a magical summer," Phillips recalls.

He spent days drawing maps that would reflect Patch’s vision of the preserve. Many of his evenings were spent painting the same glowing desert sunset he was enjoying this day.

His nights, however, didn’t have the same romantic quality. Phillips slept on an air mattress in the basement of the tribe’s attorney general. The rent for the basement that summer was a handshake agreement to cook supper for the attorney one night a week.

After that summer, Phillips turned his maps, plans and charts over to Patch and returned to Purdue to finish his education, rejuvenated by a dream the two now shared, a dream to turn a small portion of the desert into an emerald paradise. But the green dream needed to be fed and watered.

Patch and Phillips knew there was little money to go around. Patch asked Phillips to write a grant proposal.

"I didn’t really know anything about writing grant proposals," Phillips confesses. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs liked what it saw. It wrote a check for $10,000 to fund tree plantings in two acres of the park. That money paid for Phillips to return to the preserve during the summer of 1996. He recruited two other Purdue students, Adam Perillo (HLA ’96) and Sonia Mullenix (Biology ’96) to join him. They were the first of nine Purdue students who worked on various phases of the project.

The $10,000 was the trickle that started the flood. To date, Phillips has secured more than $5 million in tribal, state and federal grants to support the project to restore a wetland and riparian woodland, establish a native plant nursery and nature park, and develop an environmental education program for tribal members and visitors alike.

So far, 850 acres have been restored. Plans call for restoring the entire 35-mile stretch of the Colorado River corridor that runs through the reservation.

"As long as the waters flow and the trees grow, this project will never end," Phillips proclaims.

Terry Shaffer, environmental education director for the preserve, says: "The Ahakhav Preserve has provided a lot of opportunities for a lot of people. Dennis and Fred have done a great job. I get to work with people who have a strong cultural background who really need a lot of environmental education."

The biggest part of the project, to date, has been the removal of 230,000 cubic yards of mud to create a 2.5-mile channel of backwater running parallel to the Colorado River. The mud was used to create varied terrain within the preserve. The leftover sand and gravel provided a spacious beach and fishing area, where trout, striped bass, crappie, blue gill and catfish have been caught. That is, when swimmers like Marcus and Justin Martinez aren’t scaring them away.

"This place is so cool," says 12-year-old Marcus "You can go fishing, swimming and canoeing all in one place."

"You get to run free," adds 10-year-old Justin, "it’s awesome."

Victor Cuadras (pronounced QUAD-ras) has been project foreman at the Ahakhav Preserve since September 1998. He took the job for two reasons: He wanted to build something his family could be proud of, but he also left his job at the Parker hardware store for a chance to work with Fred Phillips.

"Before there was a preserve, there were some old refrigerators, junked cars and trash. Let me put it this way," Cuadras says, "it sure wasn’t a place you’d take your family for Sunday picnics."

Now, not only are there picnics on the grounds, but several weddings and baptisms, too. It has become a place to celebrate the continuance of life.

"My kids are getting older. In a few years, they will be coming out here and they will know their dad played a role in establishing this place. I think that’s kind of cool," Cuadras says.

Phillips and Cuadras worked side-by-side on the project, along with the Navajos, Hopi, Chemehuevi and Mojave who inhabit the 268,000-acre reservation.

"I consider myself fortunate to have met Freddy and to have worked with him on this project. He has a way of bring out the best in everyone," Cuadras says.

He recalls one galvanizing moment on the preserve.

"We were planting trees. I was working next to an Indian, and he was working next to a Chinese man, and next to him was a white guy. We were all working together. There’s something about this place that makes people want to make it better," Cuadras says, "It’s a pretty amazing place."

But it wasn’t always that way. Being an outsider, Phillips ran into many problems.

"We used to kid him" Cuadras says. "We’d say: ‘Are you a fool? What are you doing? You can’t make trees grow in the sand?’"

"He faced a lot of opposition and disbelief that anything would ever happen out here," adds Shaffer. "He was an outsider who had new ideas that represented change. Many people don’t like that."

While making proposals for grants and permits, Phillips heard references to his youthful appearance.

"I wonder if he brought his daddy," skeptics murmured.

And worse. There were physical threats from uncooperative employees and subcontractors who thought Phillips was too young or too much of an outsider to be giving them directions.

"I was fresh out of school, working 60 or 70 hours a week for three years dealing with government and tribal bureaucracy and some contractors who didn’t do what they promised. I was managing a staff of 30 people and I didn’t have any experience doing any of those things," Phillips admits.

"We had a 50-ton dredge, two bulldozers, a land grader, three dump trucks and 20 people on a revegetation crew planting 30,000 trees and building irrigation systems. It was like I was starting my own business from scratch. I think I have learned more about myself on this project, learned more about bureaucracy, management, making things work and tolerance, than most people learn by the time they are 50."

Phillips also learned when to let something go. About 14 months ago, after devoting six years of his life to the project, Phillips left the reservation and put the project in the hands of John Villalobos. "It was time to build my own world, but I loved every minute of it," he says.

And the friendships he built in the desert remain strong. People like 75-year-old tribal elder and shaman John Scott miss him a great deal.

"I don’t go to the preserve any more because my friend (Fred) is not there," Scott says. "It is not for me, but for the children, it is their future. But what he has done is a beautiful thing."

Phillips always found time to listen to Scott, who frequently dropped by just to visit his young friend. No matter what he was working on, Phillips would stop to spend a few moments with Scott.

Phillips’ professional philosophy was culled from the wisdom Scott dispensed during their conversations in the preserve.

"He said before we were here, the earth took care of itself," Phillips recalls. "It was fine on its own. The earth did its own thing to take care of itself, it burned, flooded, reseeded, destroyed and created itself all over again. It didn’t need us. But once you touch something, you need to care for it. We have touched almost the entire planet, and now we need to take care of it."

Phillips pauses, like a painter examining his work, and surveys the shoreline. He knows that on this canvas, all of the oils occupy just the right space. And before the night pushes the sun completely below the horizon, Phillips looks around at what has been his life’s work, so far.

"What we have done here is good," he says. "And as long as the trees grow and the waters flow, this will never end."

To view photos of the project

Contact Phillips at

By Tom Campbell
Purdue Agriculture Connections