Anza Electric Cooperative in Southern California put its digger derrick to creative use a few months ago when volunteer crews used it to haul a 16-foot fiberglass boat out of a canyon where someone had dumped it onto U.S. Forest Service land.

It was one of the more unusual tasks the co-op volunteers performed when they helped the federal agency clean up illegally dumped trash from Bautista Canyon in the San Bernardino National Forest for two days last November.

The AEC crews also used four service trucks to remove 50 car tires and several hundred pounds of other trash and debris, says General Manager Kevin Short.

“It was actually a lot of fun,” he says. “The employees had a good time.”

The canyon—named after 18th century Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza—is an important environmental, recreational and historical site, featuring habitat for endangered species, hiking and horseback riding trails and Native American cultural sites.

Unfortunately, it has also become a hotspot for illegal dumping, Short says.

Bautista Creek, which flows through the canyon, provides a migration corridor for birds and shelters endangered species, including Arroyo toads, southwestern willow flycatchers, Quino checkerspot butterflies and the slender-horned spineflower, according to the USFS website.

“The main concern with the illegal dumping is the effect on the ecosystem, with all the endangered and protected species in the area,” Short says.

It’s also crucial to keep the canyon free of debris because the co-op maintains a line that brings electricity to a CalFire labor camp where volunteer crews of inmates gather before they go out to fight wildfires in the area, Short says.

“We put in a request with the Forest Service to do some vegetation management underneath our line,” he says. “It’s densely overgrown, and we’re afraid of our line being damaged or starting a fire.”

“We also noticed a lot of trash and offered to help do some cleanup. The Forest Service said, ‘Sure, and would you mind hauling out a boat while you’re at it?’”

Employees of the 4,000-member co-op later took the abandoned boat hull—which was stripped of its engine—to an area landfill to dispose of it properly.

“We had to contact the county to get special permission to take the boat to the landfill because we think it was stolen and you’re supposed to show proof of ownership,” Short says. “When we called them, they were a bit confused and said, ‘Who is this again?’ It was kind of funny.”

Co-op employees also perform volunteer cleanup work on a nearby highway for the California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans.

“We usually have a contest for who found the weirdest thing,” Short says. “So far, it’s a wedding cake still in the box.”

About a third of the co-op’s 30 employees helped with the canyon cleanup effort, including lineworkers, engineers, accountants, member services representatives and broadband staff, Short says.

“It definitely was physically challenging at times, but I think everybody here really enjoys working together,” he says. “They seem to be up for anything.” Short says he hopes to have co-op crews help with more Forest Service cleanups in the future.

“We have a lot of Forest Service land in our territory, so it’s really important to have a good working relationship with them,” he says. “We’ll definitely continue to help as long as they’ll have us down there.”

It’s also educational for employees to learn more about the endangered species in the canyon, Short says.

“We need to be very sensitive to those species,” he says. “We can’t go in there to do vegetation management during nesting season and breeding times. It makes our crews more aware that these species exist and that they need to be careful around them.”

With the wildfire danger in California, AEC’s crews also have to avoid anything that could potentially spark a blaze, Short says.

“When we’re working in an easement, we don’t want to accidentally start a fire by hitting a rock with a mower,” he says. “So we mow during the rainy season rather than when it’s dry. It can be pretty limiting.”

It benefits everyone for co-ops to get along well with the federal agencies in their territories, Short says.

“Viewing the regulatory bodies as partners rather than adversaries is so much more helpful,” he says. “I would recommend approaching the relationship from that standpoint.”