Revival MinisterFred Phillips calls himself a "restoration practitioner," but residents of Yuma call him a savior. Literally. And for good reason. In the heart of their city, he helped transform 400 acres of riverfront land, which had been overgrown with weeds, trash dumps and hobo camps, back into a vibrant wetlands area.
By Jacki Mieler
Yuma The call of the Colorado River rings in the hearts of those who have been fortunate enough to experience its famed waters. For Fred Phillips, that call rang a little louder than most, and ultimately carved out a career.
While Phillips pursued a degree in landscape architecture at Purdue University, he developed a passion for Native American culture. That interest led to a fortuitous meeting during which he learned about the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) along Arizona's western border. He then spent a summer developing a master plan for the tribes' inaccessible Colorado River Corridor.
Armed with a degree and some grant-writing experience, Phillips headed back to Arizona in 1994 with only his Ford Ranger and a job offer from CRIT to implement his master plan.
The Colorado River had once served as CRIT's lifeline, but the infestation of pervasive, non-native tamarisk plants created a barrier between the people and the river. Phillips' `Ahakhav Tribal Preserve Restoration Plan aimed to make the river a point of pride once again and reunite the native people with this valuable resource.
After almost six years of navigating tribal, state and federal systems, and securing nearly $6 million in grant funding, Phillips transformed more than 1,000 acres of previously underutilized land into what's known today as the `Ahakhav Tribal Preserve. With the return of native riparian plants and wetlands restoration, CRIT has a place where locals and visitors alike can explore the Colorado River.
Phillips gave CRIT the knowledge and resources to continue the revegetation work on their own, but on a personal level, the experience inspired him to tackle other sections of the river — a waterway he considers to be "the most manipulated river in the United States."
Before the arrival of man, river systems took care of themselves, Phillips says. Enter a population of people eager to live in the desert — but needing the water, food and electricity not naturally found in the area — and you have a river that's no longer able to care for itself.
"As long as 25 million people are utilizing the Colorado River for their livelihoods, it's always going to need a caretaker," Phillips says.
He formalized his self-proclaimed "restoration practitioner" role and started Flagstaff-based Fred Phillips Consulting, which specializes in ecosystem restoration.
If his work with CRIT put him on the map, Phillips' work with the Yuma East Wetlands project is considered his masterpiece. Ironically, it was a magazine article about the `Ahakhav Tribal Preserve that attracted the attention of Charles Flynn, executive director of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. Flynn had a planning grant for the project, but was faced with an overwhelming 1,400 acres of riverfront land that was overgrown with non-native vegetation, trash dumps and hobo camps.
Flynn needed someone who could make the river accessible again to the community, and he knew that Phillips was his man.
The numbers for the Yuma East Wetlands project are staggering: six years, 16 different landowners, $10 million in grant funding and the removal of 75,000 trees, all leading to the transformation of more than 400 acres into a vibrant wetlands area.
For Flynn and other Yuma residents, the project was about more than numbers. Their return on investment came in the form of native wildlife returning to the banks of the Colorado River. Once the massive tangle of invasive vegetation was gone, birds, fish and other wildlife moved back in to reclaim their habitat. Even the endangered Yuma clapper rail celebrated the return of native vegetation. And perhaps more importantly, these elusive birds can now be found mating and nesting in the East Wetlands.
As he did for CRIT, Phillips gave the people of Yuma something they'd long been missing — a connection to the river. What had been an eyesore is now a gathering place, a recreation haven and a model for ecotourism. And this recreation is now balanced with the needs of the environment.
The idea of balance is a guiding force in Phillips' work, and while his success with river restoration has drawn him to other waterways, he will always consider the Colorado River to be the "lifeblood" of his existence. "It has provided me with a career that I love ... a place of serenity," he says. "And it's taught me so many lessons about life."
For more information about the Yuma East Wetlands, including how to volunteer, call 928-373-5198.