Youth Conservation Corps keeps Tamarac clean and green
For many in Becker County, summertime is the only time they look forward to spending their days and nights in the wilderness.
Tamarac Wildlife Refuge is a local favorite for day trips as the forest’s creatures and natural habitats all come alive this time of year.
But behind every seemingly untouched, beautiful piece of the forest is a human – or in this case three humans – entrusted with its future.
During the summer, wildlife experts on the refuge are busy cultivating a precious resource vital to its survival. It’s called the Youth Conservation Corps.
On the job
Every year, Tamarac officials handpick a small group of young people ages 15 to 18 who will spend the entire summer working on projects designed to conserve the refuge’s natural habitat and maintain its visitors’ amenities.
It will be a full 40-hour work week for these young students who have already applied with an interest in wildlife.
Out of several who apply, only three or four will get the job, depending on funding through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This year, there are three new summer employees there.
“They do receive a lot of training for the work that they’re going to do,” said Tamarac Senior Park Ranger Kelly Blackledge, who with the help of other Tamarac experts, assembles and helps train the green environmentalists.
Although Blackledge says many of them come in with some sort of hunting, fishing or wildlife experience from home, they are often stepping into their first full-time job, and safety training is the No. 1 priority.
“And that’s because they’ll do maintenance projects like assisting with some of the signage around the refuge that need to be fixed or replaced,” said Blackledge. “They’ll be painting, landscaping and heading out onto the lakes for biology projects.”
“I applied for the job because it’s fun to be in the woods and be around animals,” said Tawny Warren, a local 11th grader. “I’m always fishing and hunting with my brother, and like be outdoors. I wanted to get experience around animals more because I want to be a veterinarian.”
If this appears to be a cake summer job full of nature hikes and playing with fluffy animals, Youth Conservation Corps trainers say young workers will be surprised.
The crew recently cleaned out an old historic farmstead on the refuge, and this labor intensive project wasn’t for the weak.
“They were taking some old cars out of a wetland, and that showed them that it really does take a lot of hard, behind-the-scenes work to do the things we do and to keep these habitats healthy so that these animals will be around for future generations to see,” said Gina Kemper, who has been the crew leader for the Tamarac Conservation Youth Corps for five years now.
Kemper says their goal is to introduce the students to different aspects of wildlife conservation throughout the summer so that they get a chance to see firsthand the various job prospects that lie within wildlife conservation.
“I’m interested in science and biology, and I’m hoping to find out what kind of career I might like to do,” said Connor Yamane, a Detroit Lakes 11th grader. “I like being outside every day.”
Kemper says roughly 80 percent of the summer’s employees end up continuing on with some aspect of advanced education in the field of wildlife conservation.
Students involved in the program will be busy this summer with projects like goose banding with the DNR, counting and monitoring loons and grebes and setting gypsy moth traps to try to cut down on the invasive species that defoliate trees.
It’s a summer job that has the students strapping on waders, a lot of bug spray and delving into the beautiful summer scenery in a way they never have before.
“But I think they walk away with such an appreciation and a feeling of ‘I want to help make things better here,’” said Kemper, who says the majority of the students are from the surrounding area and have been coming to Tamarac on school trips for years. And while many may have helped in Tamarac projects before, this summer gig will give them a resume full of lifelong memories.
“I think so many of them come back and can tell people, ‘I helped stain that sign or helped put up that fence post’ or ‘I remember planting those trees’, and it just gives them so much to be proud of,” Kemper said.