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Flagstaff Couple Gives New Life to Native Desert Plants—and Local Veterans

Natural Restorations co-founders Nicole and Justin Corey are dedicated to preserving the desert for future generations. “If we didn’t have access to some of the places that our parents and grandparents had taken us as children, it would’ve had an impact on our lives,” says Nicole.

An Arizona couple helps restore vibrancy to the vegetation—and veterans—in the Southwest.

By Wynter Holden | Photography by Carl Schultz

Justin and Nicole Corey are healing the desert one saguaro at a time. As the co-founders of Arizona-based nonprofit Natural Restorations, this outdoorsy husband-and-wife duo works with homebuilders, construction companies and private landowners to harvest cacti that would otherwise be destroyed and replant them in the wilderness. “I’ve always loved cactuses,” says Flagstaff native Justin, who learned about Southwest flora from his grandmother. “We would go out for nature walks, and she always knew every plant around us.”

The Coreys launched Natural Restorations in 2015 with the mission to remove trash and graffiti from popular recreation areas and restore their natural beauty. “We jokingly say that we unofficially got started on our honeymoon in St. Lucia, when we spent most of our time picking trash out of the ocean,” Nicole says. After several years of hosting volunteer cleanup projects and environmental education classes, the couple expanded their work with a project approved by the U.S. Forest Service to replant areas of the Tonto National Forest devastated by human-caused wildfires.

“The Bush Fire in 2020 was the fifth largest fire in Arizona, and we lost more than 80,000 of the iconic saguaros, so that’s the most important thing to bring back,” Nicole explains. “But you can’t just have one type of cactus; you have to try and bring back the entire ecosystem.” As of this writing, the company’s Dedicated Restoration Team had salvaged and replanted more than 3,400 plants in the Bush Fire burn scar, with a preference for slower-growing or rare species such as saguaros, hedgehogs and fishhook barrel cacti. 

Unlike some of their for-profit counterparts, the National Restorations crew moves each plant by hand without the aid of giant cranes or digging machines. “We can’t use a truck in many cases because we want to preserve the native soil and the cryptobiotic crusts, which are collections of organisms—including algae, fungi, lichens, moss and bacteria—that are beneficial in the arid desert for resisting erosion and fostering plant diversity. Plus, we wouldn’t want to make a mistake and run over some baby trees getting across the desert,” Justin quips. Each cactus they uproot is a literal labor of love, dug up using hand tools and specialty hawking gloves that offer limited protection against the inevitable pricks and sticks. “It’s so different when you’re dealing with spiky things that can hurt you,” says Nicole. “You learn quickly what you can’t touch.”

1. “I went from counting vacation days and living for the weekend to actually finding purpose,” says Nicole, who taught positive psychology before discovering her passion for native plants. 2. Clothed in protective gear, a team member finishes replanting a small saguaro tied with marking tape to indicate its growing direction. 3. The Dedicated Restoration Team, from left to right: Garett Cline, U.S. Navy Veteran; Justin Corey; Nicole Corey; Ryan Morin, U.S. Army Veteran; Justin Ballard, U.S. Air Force Veteran. 4. Justin uses an auger donated by Bingham Equipment to prepare the ground at Four Peaks for its prickly new residents.

The Bush Fire burn scar isn’t the only recipient of Natural Restorations’ healing power. Inspired by the experiences of Justin’s late best friend, the Coreys created a program to contract military veterans for assistance on replanting jobs. Much like a transplanted cactus may struggle in its new soil, veterans often experience difficulty reacclimating to civilian life following their service. “I was in a tough spot. I struggled to find myself and how I was to connect,” says Justin Ballard, an Air Force veteran who joined Natural Restorations in 2017. In the company of fellow veterans on the field crew, Ballard’s self-esteem grew like the towering plants he rehomed. “I feel like I have become a new me, a better me,” he says. One that has dealt with failure, adversity and struggle, and I am now standing strong and upright on the other side.”

“It’s so different when you’re dealing with spiky things that can hurt you. You learn quickly what you can’t touch.”

—Nicole Corey, co-founder of Natural Restorations

A neatly placed row of saguaros awaits replantation in the Tonto National Forest, where the team will continue to water and monitor them. “We don’t stack cactuses on top of each other, so we do as many trips as needed,” says Justin.

Since the replantation project began, Natural Restorations has provided veterans with more than 6,800 hours in nature across almost 150 projects. It’s a win-win for the Tonto National Forest, the Coreys and former servicemen such as Ballard who have found their home in nature. “Many veterans have said replanting and salvaging is some of the most rewarding work that they do with us,” Nicole says with pride. “To be able to go out to someplace like the burn scar and see the life come back, and birds and pollinators return to check out the cactus we’ve just planted, there’s nothing like it.”

Visit naturalrestorations.org for information on upcoming volunteer opportunities and veteran events, or to report trash and graffiti in public recreation areas.

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