Mountain Stewards: Mcdowell Sonoran Conservancy Builds Army Of Volunteers

Mountain Stewards: Mcdowell Sonoran Conservancy Builds Army Of Volunteers

By Kristine Cannon

Northern Scottsdale resident Steve Dodd didn’t initially sign up for volunteer classes with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy. His wife did.

“Unbeknownst to me,” he says with a laugh. “I came home one day and she said, ‘Oh, I signed us up for the volunteer classes, so we can learn about the desert.’”

Dodd had been married long enough by that point to say two words: Yes, dear. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea,’” he adds. “It did turn out to be a great idea.”

That was in 2003, and Dodd is still a MSC volunteer steward, now going on 15 years. He’s seemingly done it all as a steward, too. He’s a teacher at MSC’s new steward orientation, he works on presentations, he’s a team lead for steward events, he’s a hike leader – and the list goes on.

“The steward organization kind of manages itself to a great extent with our set up,” Dodd says.

That’s because the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy is a well-oiled machine, and leading the charge is executive director Justin Owen.

Owen is fairly new to MSC, joining the team last January, but since then, he’s hit the ground running, working hard to accomplish an important task: more events and more volunteers.

“I came on board in January (2018) and one of the things that I’ve taken on my plate was being able to incorporate more activities for a more diverse crowd,” Owen says.

Over the next year, Owen and the rest of the MSC team are in the process of rolling out volunteer opportunities at some of their smaller events, like Tour de Scottsdale. “Over this season, which goes pretty much through April, we will be getting more and more folks coming out because we’re going to be doing more outreach events,” Owen says.

Currently, MSC has over 600 volunteer stewards who help promote the preserve and provide donated amenities, supplies, tools and equipment.

In fiscal year 2016/17, MSC stewards provided nearly 60,000 volunteer hours to Scottsdale. “For stewards, we ask people to do a minimum of 60 hours a year, about five hours a month,” Dodd says. “Far and away, most everybody we have does significantly more than that. We’ve got people who do more than 1,000 hours a year, for example.”

According to Owen, the amount of work and time the volunteer stewards put in equals almost 40 full-time, year-round staff.

The current staff of eight focuses mainly on the organization’s admin, seeking out opportunities that will help secure the financial means needed to maintain the preserve.

Overseeing the volunteers is a group of stewards called the Core Leadership Team, who serve as managers or chairs of each of MSC’s individual programs.

Becoming a volunteer steward with MSC is an intensive process. It includes completing and submitting two applications, attending a seven-hour orientation class and receiving guidance from an assigned mentor.

Once the orientation is complete, stewards in training participate in several activities, and within six to eight weeks, they become official stewards.

“Since I’ve been on board, we yet to have a volunteer orientation that was not sold out,” Owen says. “Because our volunteer orientations are pretty thorough, we’ve yet to have one that we didn’t have more interest than we had available.”

Of the 20 to 25 people who go through the orientation, about 95 percent graduate. “The preserve has grown so much over the years that we are at the largest that we’ve ever been and thus we are the largest volunteer base we’ve ever had,” Owen says.

The majority of MSC’s volunteers historically have been retired people “because the bulk of our activities in the past have been during the day, Monday through Friday. It’s the easiest time for people to be able to come out and volunteer,” Owen says. “A lot of them stayed for quite a long time because they’re passionate about what we did.”

Dodd stuck around because he not only finds the work meaningful, but “It’s nice to think your grandkids can come out here and their kids can come out and hike at some point in the future,” he says. “It’s got some long-range satisfaction.”

Over the past 10 years, MSC’s need for volunteers has more than doubled. “In 2008, 2009, when the recession hit, while it was a burden for most people in the world, it was actually a blessing for the city because land values became so inexpensive that they were able to acquire a lot of the land that is now the preserve,” Owen says.

But he recognizes many people don’t have as flexible a schedule or as much time to commit to volunteering, though they still want to get involved in some way.

That’s where the event-based volunteer opportunities come in. “As we introduce more event-based volunteer opportunities – those will be you can sign up and we’ll have an orientation before the event – you could come out and do some great work and not have as intensive a commitment if you don’t desire such,” Owen says.

Dodd adds that these types of opportunities are perfect for young professionals with a family. “You don’t have time to volunteer as much as you’d like to,” he says. “Anybody who wants to volunteer and help preserve, we’re trying to find a way to give them an opportunity to do so.”

Currently, MSC offers diverse opportunities through its 11 programs, ranging from a “friend-raising” and fundraising group called Conservancy Women to guided nature hikes and bikes.

Stewards also have the option to patrol the preserve, conduct research and educate the public about the McDowell Mountain region, among other opportunities. “They can go out and be able to make a difference in the community and take care of this land that is so desperately needed for preservation, and a lot of them love to just share the experience of science and the preserve with others,” Owen says.

Since 2011, the preserve has grown to over 30,500 acres.

The trail miles have increased from 56 miles to almost 215 miles, the improved trailheads have increased from three to five (with another three in development phase), the number of active stewards of MSC has increased threefold, and the number of visits to the preserve has also increased threefold.

Thanks to a recently approved donation of $50,000 from Arizona Public Service to the Pima/Dynamite Trailhead capital project, city staff will move forward with the ongoing design and improvement plans for the preserve.

Funds will be used to provide new plants, restore disturbed areas and remove non-indigenous plants, as well as add trail and trailhead education signage about preserve efforts. For more information, visit 