Fostering Personal Growth and Bolstering Public Lands

Montana Conservation Corps participants serve their communities, develop lifelong skills while completing critical work outdoors across the state

By Myers Reece
Members of the Montana Conversation Corps perform trail work on Wild Horse Island on Sept. 19, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

While exploring a national forest, national park or state park this summer, you may encounter a crew sporting bright yellow or white MCC hardhats working diligently under the high sun, perhaps repairing trails, pulling noxious weeds, stabilizing stream banks, clearing deadfall, mending fences or performing any number of other tasks.

Depending on the crew, the members could be adults or as young as middle school students. But no matter their age, these Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) participants are brought together by a common desire to serve and a shared purpose to leave the landscape better than they found it, having been drawn from all corners of the state and nation to execute that mission.

And just as important as what they leave behind is what they take with them: leadership skills, a better appreciation of the natural world, maybe a career path, and certainly an experience they won’t forget. The organization’s mission statement calls for “inspiring young people through hands-on conservation service to be leaders, stewards of the land, and engaged citizens who improve their communities.”

“We’re teaching all these personal skills in leadership and communication and conflict resolution, working on the person while simultaneously getting all this excellent work done on the ground to the benefit of our public lands and public land agencies,” said Cliff Kipp, director of MCC’s Northern Rockies district, based out of Kalispell.

Montana Conservation Corps is an AmeriCorps-supported organization that has been placing crews in the field since 1991. The nonprofit has four regional offices in the state, including the Northern Rockies district. It operates both youth and young adult programs, partnering with land-management agencies and other entities. In 2018, nearly 400 young adults from 44 states served more than 366,000 hours in Montana. Hundreds of teens also serve thousands of hours each year.

Rosalie Ramirez of the Montana Conservation Corps on Wild Horse Island on Sept. 19, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

MCC’s participants complete a wide variety of critical work on public lands and in communities, including fuels reduction, weatherization, watershed restoration, biological research, habitat enhancement, fencing, trail work and community service.

Kipp’s Northern Rockies office hosts five Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) day crews, as well as volunteer Youth Expedition crews, with high school programs running four weeks and middle school programs one week. The local district also runs six adult field crews, two wildland restoration crews and one Piikani lands crew on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

At peak season, the regional office employs about 30 leaders, 48 kids and 36 adult members. It also has three year-round staff, four seasonal field staff and three senior leaders. Crew leaders were in the middle of training last week at the Kalispell office.

The adult crewmembers, as well as the trained youth leaders, consist of AmeriCorps participants who receive living stipends and education awards through AmeriCorps. In addition to AmeriCorps funding, the nonprofit also receives dollars from fee-for-service arrangements with agencies, grants and donations to help cover operational costs.

Joel Sather, a longtime forestry technician who specializes in recreation needs for the Kootenai National Forest’s Cabinet Ranger District, said partnerships with groups like MCC are increasingly important in an age of dwindling agency funds. Sather works with both YCC and adult crews, and provides program participants with training and certifications in using cross-cut and chainsaws.

“In times of declining budgets, it’s an economical way to increase our capacity,” Sather said. “The days of having a six or seven or eight person trail crew are over. We don’t have that budget anymore.”

“The adult crews,” he continued, “they can do all aspects of trail maintenance, but where they shine is if you need a chunk of tread dug from here to here, they show up with their tools and they’re awesome at it. They also do clearing, and when you get a crew of eight people to clear trail in wilderness compared to one, that’s a huge benefit.”

Tricia Rossettie, center, grabs a tree to plant as she, Luke Dovre, left, Nancy Ann Little, right, and other members of the Montana Conservation Corps plant native trees and shrubs along the banks of the Flathead River as part of the River to Lake Initiative in 2015. Beacon File Photo

Flathead Lake State Park Manager Amy Grout told the Beacon last year, while pointing out a MCC crew working to construct a switch-backing trail on Wild Horse Island, that the “crew’s work effectively triples our budget on Wild Horse Island.”

“We’ve established ourselves as a viable resource and a capable resource, and agencies are struggling with resources,” Kipp said.

Sather said the YCC crews are similarly helpful. With the YCC program, local youths ages 15-18, mostly from communities within the ranger district — such as Trout Creek and Noxon in Sather’s district — work through the summer. It’s a full-time paid job, with the added benefit of adventuring into beautiful country. Sather says educational days, such as visits to a local tree nursery or fish hatchery, are built into the program.

“It’s not just about getting work done — it’s about training and educating and working with those young kids on life skills, which I think is awesome,” Sather said. “You’re taking kids from a remote part of the state and giving them a job and a small paycheck and work ethic. For a lot of those kids, it’s their first job.”

Carolan Coughlin, youth program manager for MCC’s Northern Rockies district, said in addition to the YCC crews working each year in Kootenai National Forest, the local volunteer Youth Expedition crews operate throughout Northwest Montana. From kids to adults, Coughlin calls MCC participants collectively a “group of energetic, friendly people united by the outdoors.”

“It’s inspiring getting to see young people coming out to make a difference in their community,” she said.

Trail work at Herron Park in 2010. Beacon File Photo

Coughlin said MCC works with a diversity of partners, operating everywhere from the deep backcountry to locations more intimately in touch with civilization, and supporting both non-motorized and multi-use motorized pursuits.

“We encourage them to develop a respect for the many ways you can interact with the land,” she said.

Kipp has been involved with MCC for nearly two decades, initially drawn to it seeking a sense of service, adventure and purpose.

“I got the bug,” he said of his first MCC stint, years before becoming a regional director. “It’s hard work in a team environment, being outdoors in the elements. There was a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence I developed.”

Years later, he enjoys seeing MCC participants imbued with those same feelings, whether it’s a one-off adventure or the start of a career in land management. And many, in fact, do end up dedicating their professional lives to public lands.

“I am incredibly proud of the destinations, whether temporary or long term, where our participants wind up,” Kipp said. “For those people to have realized a little bit of their own ambition, working for a public-lands agency, to see that we helped them along the way and helped them with skills, knowledge, connections, that’s really rewarding for me.”

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