Connecting People with Nature
Northeast Region
YCC crew pulling up water chestnut. Credit: Maddie List/USFWS
YCC crew pulling up water chestnut in canoes. Credit: Maddie List/USFWS

Youth Conservation Corps Crew Has Fun While Helping the Environment

A group of teenagers that make up one of two Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) crews at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge set out in canoes during the summer of 2010 to help remove invasive water chestnut plants from Oxbow Lake in Easthampton, Massachusetts. Their work is important because if left untouched, this plant could spread and cause severe damage to native plants and animals.

Many national wildlife refuges in the Northeast employ YCC crews, offering teenagers hands-on field experience in wildlife conservation and environmental education. Crews like this one work all over the country preserving natural habitats, restoring campgrounds, constructing trails and doing many other services for the environment.

Jen, a four year member of YCC, feels that her work with the water chestnuts has had a positive effect.“[I like this job] because I can see the good impact that I’m making on the environment as I work,” she said.

Water chestnut is an extremely hardy plant that has been growing rampant in water bodies throughout the Connecticut River watershed. It poses a threat to the native ecosystem because it can cover the surface of the water and block sunlight from reaching other plants. Without sunlight, these other plants cannot photosynthesize and produce oxygen. This deprives animals that live in the water of the necessary oxygen they need to survive.

Controlling this plant is very important in areas where the population is small because once the population becomes too large, it can be extremely hard to remove. Mechanical harvesters and aquatic herbicides have been used to control large populations, but these methods are not always effective. For example, in Lake Champlain, the plant has spread over 300 acres and may never be completely removed.

Every other day, this YCC crew works on removing these invasive water chestnuts from infested areas in the watershed. On the day I visited, they were led by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological science technician Nate Bush who works with groups of volunteers, paid workers and inmates to hand pull the plants from lakes and rivers where they have become a problem. Bush believes that pulling the plants out by hand is the most effective way to remove them.

YCC crew removing water chestnut. Credit: Maddie List/USFWS
YCC crew removing water chestnut. Credit: Maddie List/USFWS

“[Hand pulling] is the best method because you can remove the plants when they are spread out and get to them in hard to reach places,” he said.

Pulling these plants out by hand is not an easy task. They have long, sturdy roots that must be pulled up completely so that the plant cannot grow back. The kids use a special technique in which they twist the plants around their hands to pull them up so as not to snap roots and risk leaving them in the water. When they have collected all the water chestnuts they can, they will be brought to a farmer in Easthampton, Mass. who has volunteered to compost them. Any leftover plants must be placed away from the water’s edge so that they cannot wash back into the river and re-grow.

Despite the hard work and extreme heat, the YCC crew never seems to lose enthusiasm. Siphora Ketchaku enjoys her work even though it can be tough. “There are some hot days, but overall it’s fun work and great to be with friends,” she said.

The crew is also working this summer in the Fort River area in Hadley, Mass., to take down old fencing and create a habitat for birds. They are also helping to clean up a former horse farm that is now national wildlife refuge land and return it to its original flood-plain environment.

Katharine Andrews, a crew leader for YCC, feels that the work they do benefits the kids as much as it does the Earth. “The work we do with YCC is important because it helps educate kids and expose them to new experiences while also doing good for the environment,” she said. icon For more photos of the YCC students, check out our Flickr photo album!

Story and photos by Maddie List, high school student and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intern.

Last updated: July 14, 2010
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