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Stewardship Paid Forward: Native Teens Learn Conservation in Summer Program

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Forget all the head-shaking about youngsters spending their summer surrounded by electronic devices. If you’re a teenage member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (Bitterroot Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai) in Montana lucky enough to be one of the chosen few—your summer will involve work and wildlife at the Creston National Fish Hatchery.

“The tribes have always been good stewards of natural resources,” reads the web page. “Our mission statement is ‘to protect and enhance the fish, wildlife, and wildland resources of the tribes for continued use by the generations of today and tomorrow.’ ”

With that goal in mind, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain-Prairie Region sponsors a Youth Conservation Corps program that has become so popular over the past three years that there are four applicants for every available job in the eight-week summer term.

“I’ve seen firsthand how these summer Youth Conservation Corps programs with tribal youth literally change lives,” said Stuart Leon, retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chief of the Fisheries Division, credited with conceptualizing the effort. “I hired Native teens from the Fort Apache, San Carlos Apache, and Mescalero Apache tribes for summertime work, and many went on to college, majoring in fish and wildlife, forestry and related fields, and now working as natural resource professionals.”

As tribal leaders throughout the country became aware of the fledgling programs and the benefit of these youth conservation programs became more significant, the Montana tribes joined forces with Fish and Wildlife. The first class of summer youth at the Creston hatchery began in 2010 and quickly became a model program.

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“The success of this program has been gratifying. This year we had over 50 applicants for 12 positions, so the word is definitely out among CSKT youth that it’s a great summer job where you can learn helpful job skills and have fun doing so,” said program overseer Mark Maskill. “My goal is to develop a strong work ethic among these 15- to 18-year-olds, providing job experiences that will enhance future employment potential and allowing them to make some money over the summer.”

“It’s an honor to work for such a worthwhile program,” said student temporary employment program hire Austin Moran, a second-year crew leader, in a program statement. “I get to help others respect natural resources and understand the need for their conservation.”

Project needs vary from year to year but generally begin with a two-week orientation at the hatchery that teaches fish biology, fish production methods and the role of hatchery propagation to achieve fishery management objectives. From that outdoor classroom it’s into the field to encounter a variety of projects involving hammers and other hand tools.

“The Montana YCC works on both mundane and unique projects to help connect people with nature,” said Denise Wagner, USFWS Conservation Education Coordinator. In its inaugural year, crew members scrapped and repainted buildings, cleaned hatchery tanks, restored acres of native plants, controlled miles of noxious weeds, maintained trails and installed habitat fences, she said. The 2011 crew spent just a quarter of the summer at the fish hatchery and the remaining six weeks on the Flathead Indian Reservation, again performing trail work, restoring 100 acres of native plants and performing the always-needed fence maintenance.

Year three, which wraps up in early August, saw the youngsters doing lizard surveys, working with swans, cleaning up a portion of the Flathead River and working at the National Bison Range—what project leader Maskill calls “captivating projects set up by USFWS and the CSKT Natural Resource Department that catch the attention of the youth and make them want more resource enhancing projects.”

The return on investment in this program is impressive—approximately 4,000 hours of work time is logged on conservation-related projects on tribal- and service-managed lands, all at the cost of $54,000, including enrollee and crew leader salaries and other expenses. And according to Fish and Wildlife Service Work accomplishment reports, those summertime efforts represent an appraised value of about $45,000.