Forest Service youth corps does 'really hard, fun work'

The crew had something to show for it when Oregon Youth Conservation Corps workers hung up their hardhats Friday and bid farewell to a summer spent in the Mt. Hood National Forest.

It wasn't just thicker muscles and wallets, either -- the group of Hood River teenagers had made lasting improvements and additions to forest land during eight weeks of labor.

On Thursday they were finishing up work on a buck and pole fence at three-acre Middle Prairie Meadow, located about 12 miles off Highway 35 in the northeast corner of the Hood River Ranger District.

The crew built the fence to keep cattle from grazing in the meadow, said David Gross, the senior/youth/volunteer program manager with the Ranger District.

"We'd like to keep the cattle out of the meadow -- it gets wet in the spring and provides a habitat for various birds and animals," Gross explained. "It's designed to protect the meadow and keep wildlife intact."

Eight Hood River teens did the work under the supervision of crew leader Keith Obilana of Odell.

"They're a good crew, and hard workers for the most part," said Obilana. "They're fun to be around, and get the job done. I'm pretty impressed with them."

Even though the task was tiring, workers were upbeat.

"I just like going out in the forest -- it's interesting," said Carlos Marquez.

"It's really, really hard work, but at the same time it's fun -- that's weird," said Mychal Quintanilla.

Earlier this summer, the youths brushed fences, roads and roadsides at sites including Lost Lake campground, pruned trees, and cleared brush.

"My favorite was repairing the Elliot crossing on the Timberline trail," said Megan Kaufman. "There was a big flood that washed out the bridge, and we replaced it with a stone crossing."

The floods provided the crew with jobs elsewhere.

"Robin Hood campground was flooded, and we had to dig up picnic benches buried in the sand and carry them to Nottingham campground," said Julian Helt.

"Kids love the sense of accomplishment," Gross said. "They can stand back at the end of the day and see the result of their work."

There were intangible products of their labors, too.

"For a lot of kids this is their first work experience," Gross said. "We teach them skills they need, like conflict resolution, and basic things like showing up to work on time and calling in when you're not going to be there. We tell them, 'This is a real job, folks -- it's not pretend'."

The Conservation Corps workers gather at 8 a.m. and carpool to their work site, where they labor until about 4:30 p.m. and then return home. They work 40 hours a week and receive minimum wage.

Gross outlined three objectives that the YCC tries to fulfill -- to provide a meaningful work experience for kids ages 15-18 from all backgrounds, to accomplish conservation work on public lands, and to teach people something about natural resource and their management.

"Students receive one hour a day of hands-on education, where they learn what to do and why, and about the Forest Service," said Gross, who noted that students can also receive school credit for their participation. "It's a double whammy -- you get money and school credit.

"In the early days, the Youth Conservation Corps was funded by Congress," Gross continued. "Then the funding went away, but they told us to keep doing the program. Now we're funded by the Forest Service and community partners like the Oregon YCC in Salem, Trust Management Services, the Hood River County Juvenile Department, and the Mid-Columbia Council of Governments. Without them we wouldn't be able to do this program."

Typically, Gross receives two to three applications per YCC position. He divides the applicants into male and female pools, then draws names out of each hat to determine which teens to call first. Most only receive one crack at the job -- after they've spent a summer working for the YCC, teens receive the lowest priority the next time around in order to give others a chance.

YCC students capped off their summer with a day at Timberline Lodge, complete with an awards ceremony, fun activities, and of course, a little work, too.

"I see a lot of value to a program like this in a small, rural community," said Gross. "It's an appealing -- and different -- summer experience."

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