VetsWork: Youth Conservation Corps

It might not be common for folks to want to go into the forest for 8 weeks with a couple of teenagers, but after the summer I spent with the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) on the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, I would jump at the chance to do it all over again. I’m excited to tell you a little bit about my “YCC’ers”, and what they did this summer, but first let’s talk about what YCC is and what the program does. Continue Reading…

VetsWork: A Million Moving Parts


I’m waiting for the shine to wear off of my morning commute. At around 6 a.m., the sun rises over the mountains. I play games with my daughter through the rear view mirror. Pulling out of her daycare parking lot, I go over the work I expect to do that day on the Warm Springs and James River Ranger Districts. Unlike the mostly unchanging world of an office, my work environment is always changing. Every day there are new challenges and joys. Every day I am in awe of the decades of hard work that have been put into making our public lands beautiful, efficient, and accessible even while they are always changing and evolving. It would be an understatement to say I have a pretty office.

Falling Spring Falls outside Covington, VA

The view from Top Mountain Overlook on the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. (Accessible by car and a short walk)

Today I, along with my District Ranger, the head of our Recreation Department, and one of the recreation technicians, are meeting with the Ruritan Club and some volunteers to look at four popular canoe access points. On the way there, it is explained to me that back in 2012 the Ruritan Club got a variety of grants, both federal and local, to rehabilitate the launches. They have since been working with us to maintain them, but doing the large majority of the mowing, weed eating, trash removal, and other maintenance themselves. The boat launches get very heavy use by both personal and commercial paddlers and fisherman during the season between April and September and are a great resource for the community. They also, as expected, suffer abuse by heavy vehicles, trailers, nighttime donut doers, beer can chuckers, and many others. Year after year, they are monitored and maintained by the orchestrated effort of Forest Service personnel, Youth Conservation Corps workers, volunteers, and the Ruritan Club.

We pull into a circular parking lot by the river, just off the main road. The launch, open to the public year round, is impressive on first glance. The grass is green and manicured. There is no trash to be seen. Meandering pathways and wooden benches adorn the river bank. The weather is a little unpredictable today but right now it’s sunny. Before we leave the launch it will be raining again. There are several types of birds zipping between wooden boxes and signs stating various directions and a map of the river. A metal sign is attached to a tree that hangs out over the water. It reads, “Landing Ahead / Indian Draft” to let people know they can take their kayaks or canoes out there. It’s early spring, so the red buds are out. There are flashes of green along the river. We had a rain event a couple days ago and there are white caps and reflections of the sun on green waves. A smooth concrete launch juts out into the water. To its right, a path leads through a swath of green to a handicap accessible launch. One of the volunteers says there is a local fisherman that is wheelchair bound and he comes there religiously to fish from the wooden platform, sometimes with his grandson. He never had the opportunity with his son; the platform wasn’t there then.

The accessible fishing platform at Smith Bridge Canoe Access

There are some Bleeding Heart flowers, Dicentra Spectabilis, growing in the shady grove between the wheelchair accessible fishing platform and the parking lot. The heart shaped buds hang like delicate pendants from an arching green stem. The man from the Ruritan Club that mows the grass tells me his wife planted them.

Bleeding Heart Flowers are Native to VA

After agreeing to a shared maintenance schedule, discussing appropriate spraying for invasive species, identifying failure points in the plan, and brainstorming ideas to combat wear and tear, we break around 1 p.m. I hop in the truck with the recreation technician and our recreation department program head follows us to Gathright Dam.

In 20 minutes we walked into a new visitor center with a topographically accurate miniature of Lake Moomaw, the body of water totaling 3.86 square miles on its surface that is created by Gathright Dam. On the wall, mounted local fish species shimmer like they’re freshly caught. Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, brown, rainbow, and brook trout, bluegill, catfish, and yellow perch – each labeled and displayed with pride. Two men in Army Corps of Engineers hats greet us, smiling. They lead us to a below ground water filtration unit for the Lake. They explain all of the details of how it works-when they drain it, how much chlorine they add, how they test. They show us their system of beakers and funnels and instruments for testing and their collection of amazing fossils from the grounds, which they present to us with pride.

Fossils on display in the office of the Army Corps of Engineers at Gathright Dam

After we leave their tiny office we take a drive around the lake. There is a man braving the wind and rain to fish from a pier along the beach. The recreation technician tells me that a permitted concessionaire and 20 – 30 volunteers mostly manage Lake Moomaw. The volunteers are retirees that come from out West and park their trailers. They interact with the more than 5,000 campers that come every year and up 7,000 day use visitors. They report suspicious activities and do light cleanup. There is an inmate crew that has helped a lot over the years with maintenance of the emergency spillway and major trash clean up projects, if the seasonal Forest Service workers are too busy to get to it.

The district where I am working is not a huge district by any measure. It’s average in the size of its recreation program, in its land size, in its visitation, and in the size of its staff. I am the only VetsWork program AmeriCorps intern on this district. Two Youth Conservation Corps teenagers are being recruited to help with projects this summer. There will be two seasonal workers coming on board in May. There are 16 permanent employees.

There are 300,000 square miles of Forest Service land in 40 states and Puerto Rico. Within the Forest Service there are different management areas – timber, grasslands, water, recreation, trails, wilderness, and others. The upkeep and maintenance of our birthright by citizenship in this country is a profound gift and responsibility. It is obvious from a single day of work on my district, one of 600 ranger districts, that it is a vibrating web of work between cooperating agencies, organizations, clubs, volunteers, seasonal, and permanent employees.

When you hike a trail, use a public boat launch, attend a nature walk, camp with your family, go birding, or any of the other countless opportunities for interaction with your public land, you are benefitting from the tireless work of this legion of folks.

As I hop in my car to pick up my daughter and sing another dozen recitations of Itsy Bitsy Spider I take a moment to sink into gratitude that I get to be a part of this machine. I remember to include in my thoughts the gratitude and hope that my children will be able to inherit this resource from me.

The forest is really not unlike the USS Enterprise, the aircraft carrier that took me around the world in 7 months, with its millions moving pieces. The mission of the Forest Service is really not unlike that of the military, with its support and defense of our way of life, by birthright of our citizenship. A birthright we must be willing to maintain for our children. The poorest American still owns this launch, can still fish from it.

If you would like to come on board and be a part of the effort to maintain your public lands, I promise that there is a seat at the table for you among friends, and a million open doors.

An American flag hangs over the Walton Tract Canoe Access Point