YCC crew finds forest work fun, instructive

Teens gain skills through program, but funding more tenuous than ever

LOST LAKE — There is no such thing as “another day at the office” for Kathryn Rothrock and her crew.

There are trails to be repaired, trash to be picked up, and bridges — literal and figurative — to be built.

It’s all in a day’s work for the teens from Hood River employed by the U.S. Forest Service Youth Conservation Corps crew, who wind up their eight-week summer next week helping take care of the trails and campgrounds around Mount Hood.

“I would have to say there is nothing I’d rather be doing,” said Rothrock, a Hood River resident who is in her second year as Hood River crew leader. “We have the prettiest office and I have some great co-workers this year.”

The Barlow District leader is Lisa Rockford of White Salmon.

“I have really good crew leaders this year,” said David Gross of Dufur, who has been with YCC since 1974, and served as coordinator since 1987.

Five-member crews from Hood River and the Dufur area are employed each summer under the YCC program, which is mostly funded via private grants.

“What’s unique about our program is the environment people are in,” Gross said. “There’s something about being out in the magnificent forest we have here.

“I don’t now what it does, but it somehow makes them want to be here and contribute, and work together. They work a lot as a team, and they know upfront they will work as a team,” Gross said.

Last week the Mount Hood crew completed work on a trail bridge in the Lost Lake day use area, one they had built themselves, working from a rough sketch provided by trail specialist Kenny Coles.

“The crew put the bridge in essentially on their own from a scratch drawing on paper,” Gross said. “Kenny didn’t have time to help them, but he got them going and this crew took that piece of paper and implemented it and did a darn good job.”

“We’ve all learned a lot about building trails and building this bridge,” said Jen Mikkelson, a junior at Hood River Valley High School. “I’ve learned how to put my head down and put our differences aside, and how to work together.”

“I’ve enjoyed making friends,” Lucero Gutierrez said of what she got from the experience. “I knew my co-workers at school, and had seen them around but now I’ve been getting to know them and what they’re like. We’re learning skills and new friends.”

For Jarrett Ball, “this is a valuable work experience. I’d never built a trail or dug rain ditches, and now I know like the right angles and things. It’s been a fun and cooperative experience since we’re working in a five-man crew.” He’ll be a senior at HRVHS this summer.

Manuel Garcia, who graduated in 2012, said the biggest lesson he takes from his summer is “having more respect for the Forest Service, how they have to deal with a lot of things, like the trash people leave behind, and they do this year-round; not just eight weeks like we do.

“I’ve really enjoyed getting outdoors and going on the hikes — a lot of times we have to hike into wherever we’re working,” he said. “Getting to go on hikes on the job is really fun. I’ve learned people are extremely messy outdoors.”

One of the worst experiences for the crew has been dealing with bags of dog excrement.

“It would have decomposed if they had left it there, but for some reason they pick it up and put it in a bag and toss it into the woods for us to pick up,” Mikkelson said.

That is counterbalanced by the times trail users have thanked them for their service.

Gutierrez said, “We’ve had that quite a bit. One woman told us, ‘Thank you for doing your job.’”

Rothrock said, “We passed a jogger after we had done some trail work and he said, ‘Hey, are you guys the ones who built the trail back up?’ and we said, ‘Actually, yeah, we are.’ And that’s a pretty good feeling.”

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The two four-member crews are the smallest ones Gross has overseen; down from five in recent years.

“It’s all funding-dependent, and the money is hard to come by, and this year it was even harder,” Gross said, explaining that most of this year’s funding comes again from the Oregon-based private Trust Management Services. “I’m grateful they continue to fund us,” he said.

The woman in charge was a crew leader in the first YCC program on Mount Hood National Forest in 1974, back when YCC was a residential program at Camp Cody, located near Tygh Valley. The residential format grew too expensive and was phased out in 1991.

The 2012 funds also come from the state Oregon Youth Conservation Corps program and Hood River County Juvenile Department. Support also comes from the Office of Civil Rights, since the program hires Hispanic youth. But Gross said the inclusion of federal funds is “an anomaly,” though YCC started in the 1960s as a federal program.

“Funding is always an issue and this year it was an even bigger issue,” he said. He works year-round to access grants, since the ones he pursues are on different timelines.

For 2013, Gross said, “I would say the chances are at least we will have a similar size program, if not back to a five-person crew. Chances are I won’t have money to do two crews, and I might have to pick one side of the district or the other.

“Some funds are more focused on one ranger district, on one county, than the other,” he said. “The funds are kind of pooled together, but I do have to be cognizant of where the funds come from.”

Gross starts his day in Dufur, where he sees the crew every morning, gets them “lined out,” usually speaks with Rothrock on the phone, and then heads to the Parkdale area to make contact with the crew.

In the past 15 years, Gross has taken on extensive outreach and education work with volunteer groups, students, community service work crews and others, including recruiting at college campuses for Forest Service employment.

“I get a huge amount of satisfaction out of helping people grow into their potential — whether it’s YCC or crew leaders or a high school kid who comes out for a job shadow or a community service crew who comes out, or university students I talk to — I’m helping them develop. One reason why at the age of 68 I’m still doing what I do; it is so satisfying.”

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