'A full-circle kind of thing'

·3 min read

Jul. 15—A youth training program run by the Lomakatsi Restoration Project turned 10 this year, with alumni from the program's first year leading the latest generation into the woods.

On Wednesday — the second-to-last day of the four-week training program, 15 students moved along the steep slopes of Ashland's Hald Strawberry Park like farmers harvesting from a hillside — but they were actually busy removing patches of scotch broom.

Scotch broom has a 28-year seed bank, grows up to 15 feet tall, carries fire well, and if left unchecked has the power to destroy surrounding native plants, explained crew lead Harbor Engle.

"I feel like it really benefits their self-confidence, making them feel like they have a place in the world," said Engle, an alumnus of the program, who said it gave him direction when he was 16.

"It gave me something to put all that pent-up teenage angst into," Engle said.

Liam Cislow, another former student turned crew lead, said, "It's a full-circle kind of thing."

Cislow, Engle and another alum, Kaiya Spain, were students in 2012, the program's first year. This year, they're all crew leads together.

"I think it's really important to get this next generation involved in restoration — get their hands on the land," Cislow said, as he watched the students move over the edge of the hill and out of view, with no scotch broom left behind.

The Ashland Watershed Youth Ecological Training and Stewardship Program has seen about 200 students over the past decade, said Sequoia Ahimsa, Lomakatsi education and training program coordinator.

"We like to show them a wide array of ecological practices. They've done fuels reduction, they've worked in the Almeda Fire footprint, some riparian restoration and technical training like ecological monitoring," Ahimsa said.

Communications Director Tom Greco estimated the program received 50 applications this year for 15 spots.

Brooke McConnell, a senior this year at Phoenix High School, said the program gave her a new understanding of her own mental strength.

"I could go so much farther if I push myself mentally, like I have been. It's just a new experience," McConnell said.

Zyan Shull-Bain, newly graduated from Phoenix High, said his favorite part was digging a fire line on a 70-degree slope high up in the Ashland Watershed.

The students did the work to prepare the landscape for Grayback Forestry to conduct a broadcast undergrowth burn.

Shull-Bain said both of his parents were firefighters, and he enjoyed seeing what their work was really like.

"It kind of gave me a window. I'm graduating, I'm going to college, into the workforce, and it's easy to sit in class and say, 'Oh, this work is hard.' But this is real hands on the ground, boots on the soil kind of work."

Kyah Neeley, also a recent graduate of Phoenix High, said in a soft, shy voice that her favorite day was tech day.

The youth education program brings in scientists, researchers and ecology or firefighting professionals every day of the program to teach special knowledge and show students career paths they may not have considered.

On Neeley's favorite day, ecologists brought in the instruments they use to measure the growth in a forest after a treatment project and taught the students how to use them.

"It's really interesting; there's so many sections and details going in to help the forest, and we're all working in it," Neeley said.

This fall, Lomkatsi plans to start a new program focused on adults ages 18 to 25, who will learn the trade of wildland firefighting.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.

This article has been corrected. It originally incorrectly spelled Kaiya Spain as Kiya Spain, referred to Tom Greco as Communications Coordinator Breco rather than Communications Director Tom Greco, and stated the youth education program began in 1995, rather than 2012.