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Passport to Nature

LEAF Interns Explore Allegheny Highlands

“The health of these organisms ... can tell us a lot about the quality of the river water.” —Jennifer, LEAF Intern

By Kate Miley

Interns with The Nature Conservancy’s LEAF program (Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future) recently began a two-week stint in the Allegheny Highlands. This isn’t exactly summer vacation, though.

Instead of sleeping in or spending the day online, these interns are outside working. And they’re learning about the natural wonders on and around Warm Springs Mountain.

Critter Catching in the Cowpasture

The day I visited the LEAF interns, they were stationed at the Cowpasture River, a popular fishing spot for locals and tourists. The interns — Alondra, Jennifer, Sherryann, and Nisi — were fishing for something quite different, however: macroinvertebrates, or tiny aquatic animals.

“The whole point of looking at macroinvertebrates is to examine organisms that are sensitive to pollution,” explained Jennifer, a recent graduate from the High School of Environmental Studies in New York City, which all four interns call home. “The health of these organisms, like crayfish, can tell us a lot about the quality of the river water.”

Such talk puts smiles on the faces of Cowpasture River Preservation Association members who led the day’s adventures in invertebrate collection and water-quality monitoring.

The interns’ growing understanding and appreciation of natural systems and connections also concur with one of the LEAF program’s main goals: the growth of the next generation’s sense of respect and stewardship for our precious natural resources.

Need for Nature Inspires LEAF

The Conservancy recognized early on that kids are increasingly detached from the natural world. Moreover, the United States is dramatically lagging behind other first-world countries in science and math education.

Hence, the Conservancy — with generous assistance from the Toyota USA Foundation — has sponsored LEAF for the past 18 years. LEAF provides students enrolled in environmental high schools around the country with paid four-week internships, extending their classroom science to encompass real-world conservation work.

“Warm Springs is the ideal place for LEAF interns to work, learn and enjoy natural beauty that’s rare near urban areas like New York,” said Marek Smith, the Conservancy’s Allegheny Highlands program director. “We’re situated right in the middle of the Central Appalachians, a known hotspot for plant and animal species.”

From Fish to the Farm

Leaving the Cowpasture, the interns and their mentors then headed off to the Coursey Springs State Fish Hatchery. There they learned how rivers in the area are stocked for recreational fishing.

LEAF interns also gain access to unique places that a typical visitor wouldn’t experience. Next we were off to Berriedale Farm. Owners Nelson Hoy and Lizzy Biggs raise heritage-breed cattle on land protected through a conservation easement with the Conservancy.

During each stop, the interns peppered local Conservancy staffers with questions and observations. It’s especially encouraging to observe genuine interest in the natural world from young women, who remain drastically underrepresented in the professional field of conservation science.

Hope for the Future

Most of the interns are rising seniors. According to their mentor, Maren Olson, they are incorporating the environment and science into their almost constant conversations about college.

And she’s noticed other subtle changes in the girls, including an increased sense of independence and teamwork. They cook every meal together and rely on one another to finish tasks and overcome challenges.

The LEAF program does have its perks. On my second morning with the interns and their supervisors, we headed up to 9,200-acre Warm Springs Mountain Preserve. We cooked wild-blueberry pancakes on the mountaintop and enjoyed the views.

Life is good in Warm Springs.

An earlier version of this story was published in The Recorder.


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