Field Study

by Caitlin Fowlkes for Medford Mail Tribune
Published July 8, 2019

The tree canopy shaded a Lomakatsi youth crew Monday while they prepped the steep hillsides off the Toothpick Trail in the Ashland watershed for controlled burning next spring.

Shelby Wells, a senior at Logos Public Charter School, said the most challenging part of the job is working on really hot days.

The students moved up and down the hillside collecting duff, or flammable, loose materials, and cutting small logs that didn’t make the pile after the last prescribed burn.

Wells said areas are prepped for controlled burns and thinning in three stages to ensure the usable and salable logs are cut. The youth crews come in after to clean up any leftovers.

“This used to be a lot thicker, but now it looks nice,” Wells said gesturing toward the strategically spaced trees.

The Ashland Watershed Youth Training and Employment Program gives upcoming high school juniors and seniors in the region the opportunity to learn about forest ecology by giving them hands-on experience for five weeks during the summer.

The program is facilitated by the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, which conducts most of the thinning work with the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project and other partners.

But it’s not just an educational program using free student labor. The special part of this program is that the youth crew members get paid $12 an hour, said crew boss Ryan Puckett.

“It’s good for the next generations to realize that we have a lot of issues in the forest and land management, so it’s good for them to jumpstart maybe what they’re going to do with their careers and their lives,” Puckett said.

“We try to mix it up so they see different aspects of ecological restoration, fire ecology, forestry, riparian and whatnot. It’s helping them understand where they live, and maybe inspire some of them to go into natural resources as a career.”

From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, students work in the Ashland watershed and surrounding areas helping to restore a healthy forest ecosystem, maintain trails, clean up prescribed burn areas and learn about the biodiversity of the area.

Every morning starts with a safety discussion about what type of work is planned for the day, Puckett said.

After the day’s work is completed, every afternoon ends with an expert who comes into the field and presents to the students.

Presenters include experts from organizations such as the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Presentations range from discussions on cohabitation between species in the areas the students work in to how fire affects the forest in positive and natural ways.

“It’s a great way for these youth to kind of get a handle on what it takes after high school as far as college, career paths, and how they got to where they’re at as far as the field they’re specialist in,” Puckett said. “And they share their expertise and why we’re doing what we do each day, that there’s an applicable reason and usually a scientific reason each day.”

Blayne Denke, upcoming senior at North Medford High School, said he didn’t have any previous knowledge about forest health and ecology before the training program.

“It’s been more of an eye opener, and I’ve learned a lot about what they do and why they do it and what they’re trying to do,” Denke said.

Denke said his parents encouraged him to participate in the program, and he’s glad he did. He said he’s lived in forest-dense areas of Oregon and California his whole life but didn’t understand that thick underbrush is unhealthy for the woods. He said he really enjoys the hard work, too.

“I find hard work very satisfying, and there’s an endless amount of work to be done,” Denke said.

Some students specifically sought out the program, such as Wells. She said she’s participated in envirothons in the past and loves it. She hopes to attain a career in either forestry or marine biology, she said.

“This has been definitely the most in-depth I’ve gone as far as physical requirements,” Wells said. “The work gets tiresome but is very rewarding. I’ve definitely gotten a lot more fit over the last couple of weeks just because of the physical activity we’ve been doing.”

“Watch out” someone yelled as a cut log rolled down the slope, narrowly missing public relations manager Julie Akins as she moved out of the way. The log rolled down the trail and stopped at the base of a tree trunk.

“That happens a lot,” Wells said.

She said there’s a lot of slipping and logs falling, but in the two weeks she’s been in the program nobody has been hurt or fallen.

“We’re very conscientious about that and about how we move through the hillsides, so no one gets hurt,” Wells said.

She said her favorite part of the gig has been learning about the environment they work in, such as the native and endangered animals that live there and what trees are more at risk.

“I think it’s really about instilling in the next generation the jobs and the values we have for forestry, because we are in a predominant logging place, but we also have a good collaboration of organizations,” Wells said. “I think everyone on my crew right now has a good idea of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and why it’s so important for the environment and even our economy that we keep these trees healthy, especially the ones that are older.”

This year 50 students from around the region applied to the program and 20 were selected.

In addition to working in the Ashland watershed, the youth crews work along Bear Creek, by the Table Rocks and in the Colestin Valley.

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