PHOENIX — Evelyn Corliss is looking for ways to keep beavers from gnawing through cottonwood trees. Melissa Martinez is studying monarch butterfly activity. Adrianna Lara Romero is learning about the yellow-billed cuckoo.

All three are enrolled in a summer internship program run by Crystal McKenna, a biology professor at the Maricopa Campus of Central Arizona College.

Their projects have taken them far afield of Maricopa to a park near downtown Phoenix. It’s a park unlike any other in town. The formal name is Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area. And like the name suggests, it’s an effort to restore native wetlands and habitat along the Salt River.

In the early 20th century, the Salt through Phoenix became a dry river bed. The flow was diverted for farms and a growing city.

Now east and west of Central Avenue, Rio Salado offers tree-lined walks. Ponds and streams for birds. A milkweed patch for butterflies. Towering cottonwoods for shade.

I first met the interns along one such shady path while walking my dogs. A park ranger accompanied the interns. They were studying butterflies. Having an inquiring mind, I asked about their research.

I learned of the connection to the Maricopa CAC and McKenna.

I reached out to her.

She told me the students at Rio Salado are part of a larger program, Project Puente, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. A $289,000 grant covers four years and internships for 120 students. Nineteen are enrolled in this summer’s program.

They’ll receive course credit, McKenna added.

Outside Rio Salado, the U.S. Arid Land Agricultural Research Center and the Maricopa Agricultural Center offer internships under Project Puente. The centers are next door to each other.

“Our primary focus is to create a bridge between education and careers in agriculture,” McKenna said. Biosciences and the environment are in the mix.

Puente means bridge in English.

It’s a bridge to diversity in the sciences and agriculture. The grant goes to Hispanic-serving institutions, McKenna added.

I met up a second time with the three students at Rio Salado. They were donning full-length waders at the Nina Pulliam Audubon Rio Salado Center, preparing to tackle an overgrown thicket of cattail reeds.

The reeds grow in a pond that attracts migrating birds.

I had a brief chat with each student.

Evelyn Corliss is 18. At a CAC biology class, McKenna spoke about the internships. Corliss enjoys art but wanted to hear more about the summer program.

“I approached Dr. McKenna,” Corliss said. “We talked about a couple of internships.”

They decided Rio Salado would be a good fit.

In her project, Corliss wanted to learn how to manage the beaver population. With a restored Rio Salado habitat, beavers have moved back in, she said. They took a liking to cottonwoods the city planted years ago. They’ve ended up killing a number of them.

The answer isn’t to get rid of the beavers. They’re part of a riparian habitat. Instead, Corliss is looking at other trees suited to their tastes, saving the cottonwoods.

She had one more field exercise planned.

“I’m going kayaking down the river,” she said. You don’t get answers if you don’t see for yourself.

Corliss is working with a mentor who’s a wildlife expert with Arizona Game and Fish. All the students work with mentors. Phoenix park rangers give them a primer on Rio Salado as well. It’s got quite a history behind it. Rangers also accompany them in field research.

It’s a good precaution. Rio Salado is also a habitat for the homeless. They sometimes camp out, leave a mess here and there. Otherwise, I haven’t had any issues myself.

But it pays to be safe.

Corliss plans to keep up with her art. But she won’t rule out a future in science.

Melissa Martinez is 19. She lives in Maricopa. Like the others, she’s at Rio Salado by 6 or 7 a.m. She gets up at 4, while the rest of her family is still asleep.

“I try to be as quiet as I can,” she said.

She also heard about the internships in McKenna’s CAC biology class. McKenna spoke about career opportunities in science and agriculture. Martinez already had a career in mind.

“I told Dr. McKenna I wanted to be a park ranger,” Martinez said.

McKenna asked if she’d like to intern with a park ranger. As my wife, Cindy, is fond of saying: It sounded like a plan.

Martinez has been studying the butterflies. Her mentor is a volunteer with the Southwest Monarch Study. The milkweed patch beneath the cottonwoods is a monarch way station. A small habitat just for monarchs.

They’ve made themselves scarce, for now.

“I don’t think there are any monarch butterflies anywhere,” Martinez said. “You have to catch them when they migrate.”

So far she’s seen any number of queen butterflies. They feed on milkweed and bear a striking resemblance to monarchs. But Martinez can easily spot the difference, thanks to her mentor.

Martinez plans on earning two associate degrees. An Associate of Arts and an Associate of Science. Then it’s likely on to the University of Arizona.

Adriana Lara Romero is 17. She went to McClintock High School in Tempe. She’ll attend Mesa Community College in the fall.

Beyond that, she said: “I’m planning to study something in the medical field.”

For now she’s studying the yellow-billed cuckoo.

It was a common sight before the river ran dry. With Rio Salado, Romero said, “They want to bring it back.”

Romero has seen one in her field research. Her mentor, Tice Supplee, taught her to survey and identify the different birds. Supplee is Audubon Arizona director of bird conservation.

“I didn’t know anything about birds before,” Romero added.

By the time this column runs, the interns will have wrapped up their field work. And they’ll be pushing deadlines to finish their reports and arrange them on poster boards. They’ll go on display in the MAC auditorium.

For me, Rio Salado is just a walk in the park. For the three interns, it’s much more. It’s science and a chance to puzzle out what Rio Salado offers as a habitat. And what it takes to maintain it. Just now, that meant thinning out cattails.

Romero, Corliss and Martinez donned their waders and sloshed into a swampy muck. They cut through the 7-foot reeds with loppers. They carted out the cattails to Ranger Louie Adams.

He paused later for a brief assessment.

“They’re good, motivated young individuals,” Adams said.

Romero chimed in: “… who are punctual.”

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Reach contributing writer Bill Coates at bccoates@cox.net.

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