VetsWork: Looking Ahead

Robert DiTomassoAs my time in the VetsWork program approaches closure I find myself in a reflective state. I am at a point where I am trying to quantify my experience and figure out what my next step should be. One of the most important lessons learned while working with the Forest Service is that this land and its resources belongs to all of us. Agencies like the Forest Service exist to manage, but it is up to all of us to ensure sustainability. Why? Why is sustainability so important? Well, to paraphrase a popular sentiment: the world doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to our children.  Therein lies my desired path forward. Continue Reading…

VetsWork: Lessons Learned

Heather VaughanThe first advice my supervisor ever gave me was to “Never separate yourself from your food”.  While I attributed this partly to her being six months pregnant, I didn’t give it much thought until we made a quick trip to Linville Falls, which turned into a four hour endeavor including a waterfall hike. I probably could have enjoyed the scenic route a lot more if I had taken more than almonds and wasn’t hangry. Needless to say, I quickly developed a habit of always having food on my person for the day-to-day adventures the internship took me on.

Painting land lines with a back pack full of snacks.

Painting landlines, doing trail maintenance, and all the other responsibilities that came along with making the forest people friendly felt like drudgery the first few months. And I will say that I had a major hang-up at the beginning of my internship with the majority of the work being done so that people would have more and easier access to Federal land. But I learned everything we did was to keep people from destroying what they eagerly wanted to see; waterfalls, overlooks, wilderness, etc. All those functions of mowing, brushing, blazing, and weed-eating made for wider trails, foot bridges, and the maintained campsites that helped guide the community into the areas that they would create the least impact on the environment.

Old Catawba Falls crossing

New Catawba Falls footbridge

My fellow forest service members have talked about how, probably because of social media, the amount of people coming into the forest has increased dramatically in the last few years. This is good and bad. People want to connect with nature, share it with their children, but at the same time it’s hard to practice Leave No Trace when you have to step off the trail to let a family of 10 pass you by. It’s all about making a sustainable ecotourism environment, though. If people are not connected with nature then they are not going to support it…which in the long run means bye-bye funding. This has been a very important lesson for me. So I decided not to kick everyone out of the woods and after a long summer of campground maintenance, trash collection and mowing, I am happy to share the notion that everyone should be in the forest. People NEED to experience it for their own well-being and the investment future generations can help make in it.

Hopefully after my internship I can continue to support the interaction between communities and their environments in the most economical and conservative way.

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VetsWork: “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something.”

Heather Vaughan

After transitioning out of the military, I found myself longing for a job where I could get out from behind a desk and make a positive impact on the community immediately around me. The VetsWork Internship has given me exactly that. One of my biggest passions is educating people about how they can make a better tomorrow through caring for and working with our environment. Because let’s face it, things are kind of a mess right now in the world and we have to pick our battles carefully so as to not get overwhelmed. Well, conservation and preservation of our natural resources is the battle that I’m going to be fighting. And it all starts with education. So while there will always be the necessary jobs at the Forest Service, (making sure camp sites are maintained and doing paperwork), there are the more rewarding tasks of educating the community on how to live in harmony with the environment and preserve it. Having an office that is mostly outside is also a huge perk for me, as I’m a natural tree-hugger. Science has even proven that hugging a tree every so often is good for you!

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This was a delightful way of teaching cub scouts all about the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles and how to make a clean camp. Using the “Talking Hat” to keep order, we discussed all the good and bad things about the camp that had been set up. The older kids nailed all the rules of LNT that had been broken including the wild flowers that had been picked. (Leave what you find, take only pictures.) One of the best things about teaching kids these principles is that they will go back home and hopefully pass this knowledge on to their parents. Kids can be great reminders of the things that we should be doing right.

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For those of us that love being outdoors, sometimes it can be hard to look around the woods, beach, or mountains and see the pollutants of previous hikers and tourists. It can be discouraging even to know that our fellow human beings can be capable of. I’ve nearly spent a whole day on vacation just cleaning up fireworks along an area of the beach. Seeing the plastic and remainders of old campsites is disheartening. But if you ever do feel that way, remember what Edward Hale said, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do”.

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Trail maintenance is a huge part of the Forest Service. Fall and winter are the heavy trail maintenance times. So in preparation for that, I attended a week long class on how to maintain trails. Drainage was a huge portion of the class and understanding how people use trails. Needless to say, it was a great week to be outside.

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I’m happy to be a part of the Forest Service and for anyone else out there thinking about a career change, just know that taking a step out of our comfort zone can be very rewarding. I was very timid about retiring from the military after having only know that since I was 17. This VetsWork position reaffirmed my decision to retire from the military. I can still serve my country through AmeriCorps and feel a great job satisfaction. If we could all be so lucky as to find meaningful work that we love to do, we would be a lot better off. Taking the opportunity that was presented to me through VetsWork has been a great experience and I have no doubt it will take me places. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my days working towards the good of conservation, educating the community about Leave No Trace, and maintaining the trails. Come visit the Pisgah National Forest to see all the great work being done. Hope to see you out and about the Grandfather Ranger District!

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