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Youth crews learn in the forest

Lomakatsi's annual youth watershed training program was smaller this year, but still mighty
Photo by Savannah Blake Young people working with the Lomakatsi Restoration Project help build a fire line during the ninth annual Ashland watershed youth training and employment program.

What began as Liam Cislo’s summer job with Lomakatsi Restoration Project nine years ago morphed into a committed interest in natural resource management and eventually a way to provide stability for his family while fulfilling a “duty to give back to the planet.”

Cislo participated in the first Lomakatsi youth watershed training and employment program in 2012, and returned this year for his second season as a restoration technician and youth crew leader.

“For a lot of these kids, it’s their first job, and it was my first job as well, so I know the struggle of doing manual labor in the heat of the summer with bees and poison oak,” Cislo said from a Lomakatsi youth program job site July 15. “I’m making sure that everybody is using their tools properly, that everybody is being safe and drinking enough water.”

Lomakatsi’s ninth annual Ashland watershed youth training and employment program completed its 2021 season July 16. The four-week, full-time, paid experience typically draws 20 students, but this year’s crew was limited to eight due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Youth employees cleared duff and created burn piles in the Ashland watershed and Applegate Valley, removed invasive species and clipped “resprout” on previously treated public and private lands, according to Tom Greco, communications director for Lomakatsi.

Guest presenters from the U.S. Forest Service and other Lomakatsi partners educated youth employees about wildlife, fire ecology and forest health with regular presentations throughout the program, Greco said.

The last week of the program, youth continued work digging a containment line for a prescribed burn scheduled for sometime between this fall and next spring on private land along a strategic ridgeline between Wrights Creek and Anderson Creek. The 36-acre section will connect two larger areas previously treated with underburning, Greco said.

The USFS, BLM, National Forest Foundation, city of Ashland, Portland Trailblazers Foundation and Gray Family Foundation fund the Ashland watershed youth training and employment program, and it’s matched by Lomakatsi.

“Engaging youth in important projects like wildfire mitigation helps them to fully appreciate the value of working together toward a common goal,” said Virginia Gibbons, public affairs officer for the Rogue-River Siskiyou National Forest. “It provides a great work experience for the summer, and we hope some will be inspired to pursue natural resource careers.”

The youth training and employment program complements work within the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project footprint and other critical areas under the 52,000-acre all-lands umbrella in the Rogue Valley, Greco said.

“It helps them get a holistic perspective on what it takes to actively steward forests and other ecosystems,” he said. “Even if they don’t end up pursuing careers in natural resources, we want to instill a sense of confidence in their ability to make a difference in the natural world and make some positive contributions.”

Participating youth benefit from the rare experience of engaging in natural resource field work before their first college course, said restoration technician and youth crew leader Sequoia Ahimsa. Some students don’t see the field until after several years of study, she said.

This season, the smaller crew worked together more closely than the 20-person crews that tackle large-scale projects, Ahimsa said.

“I don’t think it has inhibited our ability to get things done,” she said of the eight-youth crew member limit.

Youth employee Jo Puckett, 17, said the already labor-intensive work was even more challenging because of the heat and smoke conditions, yet it remained rewarding as she tracked her progress constructing the fire line and considered the long-term benefit of her efforts.

The program also opened her eyes to career possibilities in field research, fire science and forestry, Puckett said.

“I think we have a really strong bond with each other,” she said at the work site July 15. “We have each other’s backs, I can rely on them and I feel safe working with them, especially when we’re swinging dangerous tools.”

Puckett said early in the program she learned to respect the limitations of her slight build, and to see that each crew member can make an equal contribution to the project regardless of strength. Still, she was proud to leave the program physically stronger than when she walked on the first job site.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.