Summer stewards
Southwest Youth Corps crews hard at work on public lands

Members of a Southwest Youth Corps crew lug 40-pound water bars up the Haflin Creek Trail on Tuesday. The crew is one of several that works each summer in the Four Corners area maintaining trails, thinning trees and rehabilitating wildfire areas./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

It’s 10:30 in the morning a quarter of the way up Haflin Creek Trail and 16-year-old John Tolar’s mind has wandered to breakfast meats.

“I’m dreaming of bacon and sausage, sizzling,” says the Bloomfield, N.M., teen as he makes his way up the steep trail.

Tolar is among a group of 10 teens and young adults that pounds the area’s trails by day and sleeps under the stars by night. And while the description may sound a little like summer camp, complete with yearnings for a home-cooked meal, as Tolar and his peers can attest, it’s anything but.

“We already went three miles this morning,” says Tolar as he and two cohorts stop to take a breather on one of the trail’s switchbacks. The group has broken up into crews of three: two shouldering 40-pound water bars while the third hauls tools – Pulaskis, loppers, rakes and the like. For the last eight weeks, the group, a work crew from the Southwest Youth Corps, has been doing fire rehabilitation in the Missionary Ridge burn area. Although it is only mid-morning, they have been at work for hours, having first to retrieve their tools from the previous days’ work site near Vallecito after a last-minute change in work detail.

With only two days left in their project, the conversation has turned to cold showers, clean clothes and – of course – food.

“There are two vegans in the group, so we eat mostly beans and rice, vegetables and tofu,” says Tolar, adding that he doesn’t mind the group-imposed diet, but he does partake in a private stash of meat occasionally. “I packed my own potted meat, deviled ham and Beanie Weenies.”

Such adaptation is all part of the youth corps experience, says the group’s executive director, Shannon Manfredi. The crews work together anywhere from four weeks to five months in a communal setting, which is vital to teaching life skills. “They do everything as a group,” she said. “They learn how to get along with other people; they learn how to cook meals together; they learn tolerance; and they learn appreciation.”

Modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, Manfredi said the Durango-based Southwest Youth Corps is one of about 120 in the nation that provides practical, on-the-job training for young adults. Projects, which all take place in the Four Corners region, vary from trail maintenance and fire rehab to park improvements and civic beautification.

“They do work that probably wouldn’t get done otherwise,” said Gary Mason, the Missionary Ridge burn area rehabilitation supervisor with the San Juan Public Lands office, who is guiding the Haflin crew on its latest mission. And while the program is meant to provide a community service, it also instills values in the workers, he said. “The workers learn a strong work ethic as well as stewardship for their public lands,” he said.

Since it began in 1998 with 16 workers, the Southwest Youth Corps has grown to employ more than 100 workers each summer. The workers are split into crews of 10, which include two supervisors, and are further divided according to the work they do. There are roving day crews; frontcountry crews, which work from base camps in a situation similar to that of car camping; and backcountry crews, which operate from remote locations at least three miles in. There also is a fire fuels reduction crew as well as a leadership program that grooms crew leaders, Manfredi said.

She said workers must possess two prerequisites: being between the ages of 16 and 25 and having a willingness to work. Other than that, they come from all over the country and from various backgrounds, including college graduates, high school drop outs and at-risk teens. However, she said at least 75 percent of participants are from the Four Corners area.

“We’re serving the local communities’ youth, so we try to reflect local communities’ demographics,” she said, adding that for the most part, this includes Anglos, Hispanics and American Indians.

John Tolar, 16, of Bloomfield, N.M., takes a
break from work on the Haflin Creek Trail in the
MIssionary Ridge burn area on Tuesday.
After his 8- week program wraps up work this week, Tolar will begin another six-week program with the corps./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

She said the reasons people join are as varied as the background from which they come.

“Some need money, some want to get away and see other places, and some want job training,” she said.

Tolar falls into the latter group. He dropped out of Bloomfield High School and joined the corps on June 1.

“I didn’t like going through metal detectors at school and decided it wasn’t for me,” he said.

With the money, experience and references from the youth corps, he said he plans to earn his GED and take a course in underwater welding. His plan is to eventually land a job on a pipeline, the family trade.

“Everyone in my family worked on the Texas pipeline,” he said. “I’m a pipeline baby.”

Jayson Bedker, 17, of Cortez, who is in his second summer with the youth corps, said he plans to use the money he saves to some day go into business with a friend. He also has his eye set on an Americorps scholarship, which are awarded to 17-year-olds in the program. According to Manfredi, about 30 of the $1,000- to $2,400-scholarships are awarded to participants each summer and can be applied to further education.

“I’m hoping to use it for a mechanics degree,” said Bedker.

Other program participants have a more direct link between the work they are doing for the youth corps and their future. Crystal Budd, 18, who is from Colorado Springs and attends Brown University, said the corps is a good way to gain experience for a future career in environmental studies. Likewise, Shaun Elmore, 16, of Durango, said he joined the corps because he loves the outdoors and wants to pursue a career that involves wildlife and photography.

“I get to be outdoors, that’s the good thing about it,” he said. “I love it.”

Allison Laramie, 23, a crew supervisor and recent college graduate from Vermont, said she also enjoys the outdoor aspect of the job, but that the diversity is perhaps an even bigger asset.

“Growing up in Vermont, I was sheltered,” she said. “But here I’m working with a diverse group of teens. It’s fun working with this age group and experiencing their growth with them.”

And as its members grow, Manfredi said she is hopeful that the program will continue its growth as well – benefiting not only local public lands but society as a whole.

“We are dealing with youth and the environment, the two most important things to our future.”







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