Inside Region 3
Midwest Region
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Colton moves a turtle across the road in the direction it was moving. I felt proud to see his care for nature show that day. Photo by James Kawlewski/USFWS.
Colton moves a turtle across the road in the direction it was moving. I felt proud to see his care for nature show that day. Photo by James Kawlewski/USFWS.

What’d you do over summer vacation?

School is starting back up for students across the country and the big question they’ll be asked is, “What’d you do with your summer vacation?” For one group of teens in the Midwest, the answer is, “I worked for wildlife!” Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge in Indiana hosted a group of four youth who dedicated their summer to supporting conservation.

Known better by their shorthand name, YCC, the Youth Conservation Corps has been an engine for progress on federal lands across the country for decades. This summer employment program has been connecting young women and men, age 15 through 18, with national wildlife refuges, parks and forests to work, learn, and earn together by doing projects on public lands since the 1970s. Still, most people aren’t familiar with the program. When asked what crew members do, the most common response is, “You work for the DNR, right?”

Not so! Our Youth Conservation Corps crew had the opportunity to learn about how - and more importantly, why - we manage national wildlife refuges differently than other federal and state lands. As their crew leader, I can tell you that working with young conservationists was much more than manual labor. My crew learned about everything from environmental education and safety, to working together as a team and understanding the reasoning behind refuge management decisions. They put a lot in and they got a lot out in return!

Planting trees at Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by James Kawlewski/USFWS.
Planting trees at Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by James Kawlewski/USFWS.

Although the jobs were challenging, our crew worked hard to meet refuge goals for the program, no matter how hot and buggy it got. The summer started with planting 1,000 saplings of white and black oak, black cherry, black walnut, and tulip poplar trees. While this can be back-breaking work, the crew learned how to do it safely, with proper tree planting techniques. Although the students are definitely tired of planting trees, they are all excited to see the future tree growth. Tree planting wasn’t the end of challenges this summer.

The Youth Conservation Corps crew tackled jobs like watering trees, cleaning up litter, maintaining trails, posting boundary signs, staining information kiosks, cleaning refuge vehicles, and installing components of an interpretive tree trail. Our crew learned about the behind the scenes work that goes into running a national wildlife refuge that’s more than 6,600 acres in size. They also learned how rewarding it can feel to make a difference in a special place that people care a great deal about.

In addition, our crew participated in environmental education days at a state park, national forest, on private property, and at the refuge. At each place, they learned about the natural and cultural resources, as well as the difference in wildlife management practices between various agencies and landowners. My most challenging job as crew leader during the long, hot summer was to keep morale up.

As their crew leader, I’d have to say that the students get more out of the experience than they realize. When asked to write about their experience, one crew member named Chance wrote that, “The smell of summer is in the air where predator and prey fight for survival as do the native and invasive plants on the ground one overgrowing the other to stay alive. I see the work we have done over the summer, the long hours, the rain, the sweat, the aggravation, and the sun.”

Lane, another crew member, simply said, “It was fun working alongside all the good people this summer.”

Through it all, I felt rejuvenated. They constantly asked questions about wildlife, management practices and the laws that are the backbone of our work. That reinforced the importance of the program for me.

By James Kawlewski
Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge

Youth Conservation Corps members Lane, Colton, Adam, and Chance team up to drive a post into hard ground. Photo by James Kawlewski/USFWS.

Youth Conservation Corps members Lane, Colton, Adam, and Chance team up to drive a post into hard ground. Photo by James Kawlewski/USFWS.

 

Last updated: September 13, 2017