Fifteen-year-old Brianna Thompson and 17-year-old Zoë Webb were knee-deep in a small, cold spring-fed stream in William O’Brien State Park, yanking out clumps of forget-me-nots, a pretty but problematic nonnative flowering plant blanketing the water and clogging it for native trout.
“I’ve seen people walk right into the stream not knowing it’s even there (because of the thick vegetation),’’ said Wayne Boerner, park manager, as he watched Thompson, Webb and seven other youths with Conservation Corps Minnesota uproot gobs of plants.
“This will really help this stream and allow trout to use it,’’ Boerner said.
The nine-member crew toiling at the park just north of the Twin Cities last week and their fellow crew members are among more than 500 youths and young adults, age 15 to 25, who this year will serve in Conservation Corps Minnesota. The nonprofit group is following in the footsteps of the federal Civilian Conservation Corps, created in 1933 during the Great Depression. Crews earn money, learn about the environment and improve the state’s natural resources — building trails, planting trees, and doing maintenance on public lands throughout the state.
Camped in tents at William O’Brien, the youths, clad in yellow hard hats and armed with saws and shears, also trimmed brush from trails, campsites and buildings at the park’s campground. Earlier in their four-week summer program, they worked on trails in Superior National Forest and St. Croix State Park.
They earned $190 a week while also getting work-skill training and environmental education.
“It’s not just a work program, it’s a youth development program,’’ said Cindy Green, a director with Conservation Corps. “They are taught how to write a résumé, interview and manage finances. They learn teamwork. They end up with a stronger work ethic, self esteem, communication skills and job-searching skills.’’
And they have fun. The youths and their two young adult leaders are immersed in the outdoors, camping the entire time.
“I love it,’’ said Webb, of Northfield. “It’s a great program. You learn how to work with other people, and the work we do is fun.’’
Said Thompson, of St. Paul: “The first hour we met, it was silent, but now we’re like family — we’re always happy and singing.’’
Thompson and Webb are members of a Conservation Corps program open to 15 to 18 year olds. Adult corps members 18 to 25 lead youth crews, build retaining walls, docks and other structures, do prescribed burns, fight fires and respond to disasters, sometimes in other states. More than 100 helped with cleanup in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy last year.
Those in the adult programs receive funding under the federal AmeriCorps program, including up to a $5,550 education award for year-round work and a $1,200 monthly stipend.
This isn’t “make work,’’ said Len Price, executive director of the Conservation Corps. The crews fill a void.
“Our employees do some of this work, but we can’t handle the volume,’’ said Boerner, the park manager.
Said Price: “It’s a win-win deal. It’s a win for these kids and it’s a win for the people we work for and for our natural resources.’’
The program has grown since funding from the state ended in 2003 and the group became a nonprofit, said Price, a former state legislator. Agencies pay for the work and other revenue comes from the Legacy Amendment, the federal AmeriCorps program and donations. Last year, the program had a $7 million budget. The group has expanded into Iowa, thus its formal name: Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa.
Among the accomplishments last year: Improved 851 miles of trails, built another 34 miles, built or repaired 848 campsites, burned 32,000 acres, removed 296 miles of river obstructions, removed unwanted vegetation from 4,342 acres and planted 150,000 plants and trees.
“We have an awful lot of work out there,’’ said Peter Hark, Department of Natural Resources Parks and Trails operations manager. “It’s critical getting that work done, but also connecting young people to the outdoors. This program does a phenomenal job of doing that.’’
Maclaine Sorden, 24, of Creston, Iowa, and Susie Krikava, 19, of Stillwater, were crew leaders for the nine Youth Corps members working at William O’Brien State Park last week. They will supervise a second group for another four-week program.
“It’s a wonderful job,’’ Krikava said. “I love working with youths.’’
Said Sorden: “They learn something they wouldn’t learn in a classroom.’’
A new experience
There is no shortage of young people willing to work.
“We get four applications for every opening,’’ said Green.
Working outdoors with their hands is a novel experience for many participants.
“Some have never been out of the cities,’’ Price said, watching the William O’Brien crew clear buckthorn near a park building. “Some haven’t been to a state park. A lot of these kids have never touched a hand tool.’’
Said Green: “They have to leave their cellphones and all electronics behind. We want them communicating with each other, not with friends back home. At first they’re a little panicked, but by the end they’re happy to give it up.’’
Thompson, the St. Paul teen, conceded that giving up her cellphone was difficult at first, “but after a while it wasn’t bad.’’
And she said she relished the experience, and bonding with her fellow crew members. “I’ll miss all these people,’’ she said.
Green said the Conservation Corps slogan on the back of the youths’ muddied and wet T-shirts best summed up the program:
“Resources restored, lives changed.’’