I had visitors from Portland last week, friends who were so ecstatic to swap the Pacific Northwest’s cold and wet for Tucson’s warm and dry, it was impossible to keep them indoors.

Their one demand was that we hike to their favorite Tucson destination, Seven Falls, in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area.

Whenever I take out-of-towners into the Sonoran Desert, I begin seeing it through their eyes. I relived the first few times I walked the Bear Canyon Trail, peering upward at the steep walls of the Catalina Mountains, listening to the stream rippling at my feet and the bird calls coming from every direction, then reaching the turn in the trail where I first caught a glimpse of the falls, the water dropping in stages until it pools at the bottom and forms the stream I crossed again and again to reach that spot.

The Sabino Canyon area is a free gift that keeps on giving, bringing new pleasure every time I visit.

As we headed back toward the car, I began thinking about the roads, trails and bridges that allow an old duffer like me to venture deep into the Catalinas. Who built them? I thought I knew the answer, but I wanted to make sure.

I asked a few questions at the visitor center and was handed a pamphlet, “The Civilian Conservation Corps, Coronado National Forest, 1933-1942.”

As I suspected, the Sabino Canyon area and much of the Coronado National Forest was preserved and made accessible to the public through projects created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Depression.

Fifteen CCC camps were set up across southern Arizona. According to the pamphlet, “Projects included constructing roads and trails, building stock tanks and cattle guards, erecting fences and telephone lines, building campgrounds and picnic areas, conducting revegetation and erosion control projects, planting trees, and building Forest Service administrative sites.”

To use today’s term, the Depression era’s “stimulus package” turned Sabino Canyon into an inviting natural playground. Some people call the CCC and WPA “make work programs” where the government paid people to dig holes, then paid others to fill them in. I’m sure that was true in some cases, just like I’m sure some of Obama’s stimulus package will result in wasteful spending. But the unmarried 18- to 25-year-old men who lived in CCC camps throughout Southern Arizona weren’t digging holes and filling them in. They were building trails, roads, picnic areas and campsites – and bridges strong enough to withstand the monsoon floods of 2006. They earned $30 a month and sent $25 of that home to their families. They worked hard. They learned trades. Some of them learned to read and write.

FDR referred to these programs as “sound investments for the future.” He was right. They were sound investments in the environment and in the lives of people who were given the opportunity to work when the private sector was in disarray.

The parking lot was full the day I took my friends to Sabino Canyon. Young people strode together down trails without an iPod or a text message in sight. Parents pushed infants in strollers while proud grandparents walked by their sides. An extended family of 20 lugged picnic supplies to a few tables a quarter mile from the Sabino Dam. The adults waved and smiled as I passed by. There’s not enough money in the world to buy the kind of enjoyment this family was having for free, courtesy of a 70-year-old gift we’re still enjoying.

I wonder, will people 70 years from now look back gratefully on gifts we left for them? They certainly won’t care about tax breaks we gave ourselves. I’d like to think, among other things, they’ll have reason to thank us for preserving and enriching our environment so it affords them the same kind of pleasure we enjoy today.

David Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.

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