BONNERS FERRY — Your first job. It is something that you remember throughout your life. For some it may have been the classic local burger joint; for others it may be bagging groceries at the grocery store, or possibly a bookstore or a pet store.
For a lucky group of 14 teenagers, this summer they will be working outside in nature, getting a wide variety of experiences. This is not the first job for all of the them, but the program, United States Youth Conservation Corps (YCC), is set up to educate all who land the position as if it were their first job.
“I joined because I wanted to be outside instead of an office or grocery bagging,” said Austin Donn, 16, who will be working at the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge (KNWR). After the first week, he appeared enthusiastic, saying that he thought it was fun and that he enjoyed it.
The YCC is a summer youth employment program that provides young people the opportunity to work on national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and fish hatcheries. This fosters a feeling of environmental stewardship and civic responsibility. The program is mostly for local youths, who will receive minimum wage for 8-10 weeks, working 40 hours a week.
The group began their first day with a visit from Idaho Department of Labor Manager Summer MacDonald on June 18 at the KNWR. MacDonald engaged the class quickly, talking to them about how to be successful in the workplace, like the importance of being on time, getting along with co-workers, how to manage their time, and how to read their paycheck.
“We talk about communication,” explained MacDonald, “what to do if you disagree, like an interpersonal problem with a co-worker or supervisor, or you don’t understand something. We talk about following directions; we talk about the importance of asking questions. We will spend some time this morning having some snacks, having some fun; talking about those things that they may come across in this job and all their jobs from this point on.”
Ten of the young men and women were hired on by the Forest Service, and will work under leaders John Martling and Debbie Pauls.
“The projects are generally recreation and trails projects although later this year they may help our aquatic folks with some creek preparation work to aid with the return beavers in one of our drainages,” said Forestry Technician Pat Hart of the U.S. Forest Service.
Hart explained that they are working on a major restoration project at Solomon Lake in cooperation with Stewardship projects approved through a timber sale. The YCC employees are building two camping sites with tables, fire rings, and tent pads. In addition, they are also transplanting vegetation to damaged sites to aid in preventing lakeside erosion.
“They will be building and replacing a swimming dock at Robinson Lake, building railings to assist access, installing benches at individual campsites and graveling sites to aid with accessibility,” said Hart. “Trail reconstruction will be on the Arndt Trail and Ruby Trail, near Canuck primarily.”
Each of them will also be asked to give at least one safety presentation during their work this summer. Martling and Pauls will also help teach basic construction skills and other educational instruction each week.
On the KNWR, they will also do a wide variety of projects under the leadership of Youth Conservation Corps Crew Leader Gerald L. Bliss, who will be taking the position for the thirst summer this year. Among the planned duties this summer will be learning about noxious weeds, learning about habitat, performing some trail work, and other special projects.
“Past crews have developed the eagle nest display. Other ones have poured concrete pads to build the picnic area by Myrtle Creek,” said KNWR Manager Dianna Ellis. “Last year’s crew built some of the waterfowl hunt blinds which were wooden structures.”
Ellis adds that due to their age, the summer employees will not be using power tools. They will learn the old fashioned way — hammer and nails.
“What is nice, is for them to expand the horizons,” said Ellis. “Every other Friday they go on an environmental field trip. It just makes them aware of other things going on in the area. In the past they have gone to Libby Dam and they will get a tour of the Libby Dam operations and they will learn how that affects the city of Bonners Ferry, and how it also affects the refuge and our ability to manage the wetlands and the water levels in the wetlands.”
The oldest member this year is 18 year old Grace Stewart, who said she is excited about the program, especially the field trips.
“I love the outdoors,” said Stewart, who hopes to find a career in the field, “and I love learning.”
“They are behind the scenes at the refuge so they get to see all of the work that goes into operating and managing a wildlife refuge for the public,” explained Ellis. “They get to see wildlife up close and personal and do a lot of great projects that help wildlife and the public.”
Another unique opportunity that the four KNWR YCC employees will have is to help with some of the special programs and environmental education programs for preschoolers.
“We will have them help us to teach the little kids,” Ellis said. “They are actually paying it forward to the little ones. In the past, they have helped them make animal tracks with plaster of paris and other things like little pollinators made out of toilet paper rolls, and things like that. No two days are ever the same on the refuge.”
Bliss, the crew leader for the KNWR team is a retired school teacher and loves the YCC program, explaining that it keeps him young.
“It is a lot of work, but it’s also a good learning experience for the students. For some of them, it is the first job that they have ever had,” said Bliss. “They work as a team, so we encourage them to help each other and not be competitive. I see a lot of growth in them each year.”
“It keeps bringing me back,” he said.
The fourteen teenagers embark on a summer adventure- an experience they will take with them for the rest of their lives- and they will also leave their mark on this community.
“The YCC in Bonners is the oldest program in the Region and youth crews over the past 40 plus years have provided most of the local forest ‘attractions’,” said Hart. “We’re really proud of them.”