A team of three students from a Manhattan high school are spending a month of their summer break hard at work in West Virginia’s mountains, learning about conservation careers while helping The Nature Conservancy protect and restore important natural habitats.
The three teen-aged boys, accompanied by an adult mentor and Conservancy staff, are among 52 New York City students participating in the conservation organization’s environmental education program LEAF: Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future. The program, aimed at connecting urban youth with nature, combines enriched environmental curriculum in high school classrooms with paid residential summer internships. LEAF is made possible by The Nature Conservancy and the Toyota USA Foundation.
“Our primary goal is to inspire future environmentalists, while enlightening students about the wide range of career paths in the conservation field,” said Brigitte Griswold, Director of Youth Programs for The Nature Conservancy. “LEAF allows students to take what they’ve learned inside the classroom and literally apply it outside. This program has been proven to have profound impacts on the students’ awareness of higher education and professional paths.”
The students, who attend the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan, are midway through their four-week assignment in West Virginia. They have built anti-browse deer cages to protect young balsam fir in the Canaan Valley, removed non-native, invasive plants from Pike Knob and in the Greenbrier Valley, and they have worked on a red spruce restoration project at the Conservancy’s Bear Rocks Preserve.
Over the next two weeks, they will be maintaining trails at Ice Mountain and cutting trees to maintain cedar glade habitat in the Smoke Hole Canyon. When they are not working in the field, the students have been kayaked the cheat River and visited local colleges.
Mike Powell, the Conservancy’s land steward with whom the students have been working, said the Conservancy has benefited from the program because it provides a team of workers to supplement a small staff during a time of great need.
“At this time of year, there is a lot of field work that needs to be done,” he said.
For 17-year-old Julian Orellano, the program has led to a series of ‘firsts,” including his first experience in West Virginia’s mountains, his first white-water boating experience, and his first taste of venison.
“The lady we’re staying with invited us to eat deer meat with her. It was delicious,” he said.
Julian also experienced his first bee sting – seven stings, actually – and while the experience wasn’t pleasant, he says it taught him a lot about his own ability to cope with adversity.
“We were cutting down multiflora rose and the hive was under a rock I was standing on,” he said. “I’m not going to lie. It was a shock. But I kept on working.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself, and how I can handle this environment,” Julian said.
Julian is joined boy classmates Brandon Noble and Matthew Feliciano and their mentor, Marcus Harvey.
Powell says he’s been impressed at how the students have adapted to a life without cell phones, video games, and sleeping in.
“At first, they were afraid of bugs, and they tired easily,” Powell said, “but they are adapting really well.”
Earning $9/hour and working in areas from the rocky coasts of Maine to the longleaf pine forests of Georgia, interns focus on stewardship work while tackling fields such as marketing, philanthropy, finance and human resources. Students are required to submit two journal entries about their field work, a final two-page essay and a group project based on their experience. For many program participants, this will be there first summer away from the city and their families.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
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