2018 Project of the Year: Southwest Conservation Corps and Montana Conservation Corps - Wyoming Women's Fire Corps

At The Corps Network’s annual National Conference in Washington, DC, we celebrate the important service Corps provide to communities and young people across the country by honoring Corps who have taken on especially noteworthy endeavors within the past year. Projects of the Year are innovative and show a Corps’ ability to work with partner organizations to give Corpsmembers a positive experience and provide the community with meaningful improvements. Learn more

The Wyoming Women’s Fire Corps (WWFC) is a pilot program that ran August through early November of 2017. Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC), Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) joined together in this collaborative effort. 

SCC and MCC each contributed a crew of six female Corpsmembers and two female Crew Leaders to work with the BLM in Wyoming. The goal was to give these 16 women the confidence, technical skills, and leadership abilities to pursue careers in wildland firefighting. The women completed training and were certified in S130/190 wildland fire fighting and S212 saw operation. The scope of work for the program included fire mitigation and prescribed burns, as well as various chainsaw projects in locations throughout Wyoming. Additionally, both WWFC crews had the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience while dispatched on a 14-day assignment to support the massive firefighting efforts in California.

The WWFC is a perfect example of innovation in the Corps Movement. It is a unique opportunity to develop collaborative solutions to several needs. First, this program helps address the huge gender disparity in wildland firefighting. Only 11 percent of permanent wildland firefighting jobs in the U.S. Forest Service are held by women. BLM faces similar statistics.

Second, the WWFC plays a role in addressing resource management concerns. Wyoming has large tracts of land that are potential habitat for the endangered sage grouse, but these areas need to be restored through the removal of encroaching conifers. An effort of this kind requires chainsaw work with a hand crew; perfect saw and physical training for a future wildland firefighter.

The WWFC is potentially the first all-women’s fire crew within the Conservation Corps movement. Additionally, this was the first time either SCC or MCC operated an all-female crew with a set purpose. The uniqueness of this program helped bring in far more applicants than anticipated; within just a two-week window, both Corps received three applicants for every slot.

The first WWFC cohort just closed their season. They report having had an incredible, life-changing experience. Each Corpsmember was an AmeriCorps member, earning a living allowance and finishing with a Segal Education Award. With only one exception, all SCC and MCC members are interested in applying for fire jobs next season; a testament to the empowering nature of this program.

At this point, it’s too early for SCC and MCC to report on how many WWFC participants became employed in wildland firefighting. However, they have already seen other positive effects of the program; SCC has been contacted by BLM and other organizations that are interested in hiring the Corpsmembers and learning more about replicating the initiative in other parts of the country. BLM and both Corps have deemed the WWFC highly successful and are working to repeat the program in 2019.

In the months to come, the two Corps will team-up to develop solutions for challenges discovered in the first year of operation. One of the key factors in the success of this pilot was the critical collaborative effort from staff at SCC, MCC, and the BLM. Several large conference calls took place to establish expectations, logistics and needs of all parties involved.

Both SCC and MCC have been strengthened in many ways because of the WWFC. Each Corps has developed relationships with communities in Wyoming and with the BLM of Wyoming. Additionally, their crews have increased their capacity to respond to wildland fires, complete prescribed burns, and tackle a backlog of habitat improvement projects. Most importantly, however, both Corps have increased diversity and are excited to play a role in opening-up an opportunity for women who are interested in fire, yet unsure how to get a start in such a male-dominated field. This project has developed into a stepping stone for this specific demographic.

As one Corpsmember said of the WWFC: “For women who are thinking ‘maybe I can’t do this,’ you totally can. You just have to have the determination and the willingness to put in a lot of hard work and sweat.” 

Single Identity-Based Crews Research: Update from the Road No. 1

As part of her studies at the University of Oregon, graduate student Jordan Katcher plans to create a toolkit that provides resources for increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (D,E,I) within Conservation Corps programming. To do this, Jordan hopes to combine academic research with insights from the field.

During the summer of 2017, Jordan is traveling throughout the country to visit several Corps that operate identity-based programs (e.g. Veterans Crews, ASL Inclusion Crews, Native Youth Crews, LGBTQ Crews, All-Female Crews, etc.). She'll be conducting interviews and gathering information about innovative and effective practices. The Corps Network is hosting a blog where Jordan will share her experiences.


By Jordan Katcher - submitted July 7, 2017


Hello all! My name is Jordan Katcher and I am a current Community & Regional Planning graduate student at the University of Oregon. For my master’s degree, I have the opportunity to complete a professional project of my own choosing; given my background serving with AmeriCorps and working for Conservation Legacy, I knew I wanted to focus my research on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (D,E,I) within the outdoors.

Coming from the Conservation Corps family, I know how difficult it can be to oversee program logistics while maintaining sustainable relationships with members, team leaders, community partners, and funders. It’s a lot to juggle, and being able to perform thorough program evaluations and share what’s happening throughout the larger network of Conservation Corps can also be a struggle, too.

Knowing the limitations that face Conservation Corps led me to think more about D, E, I practices within these organizations, especially as I started to learn more about “single identity-based crew” models. Throughout the country, several Conservation Corps have initiated single identity-based crews that not only create access for traditionally marginalized populations within the Conservation Corps world, but also integrate and share the identities of these members within the larger environmental movement.

Knowing about several single identity-based crews, such as the Utah Conservation Corps Disability Inclusion Crew, the Northwest Youth Corps American Sign Language Inclusion Crew, and the Idaho Conservation Corps All-Women Crew, led me to think more about how important these crews are and how crucial it is that the evolution of these crews be shared throughout the larger Conservation Corps network. I decided to create a toolkit that combines both on-the-ground experience as well as academic research centering on single identity-based crews.

Once I solidified my professional project scope, I partnered with The Corps Network to set up site visits with Conservation Corps across the country. I was also honored to speak with Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin and Ava Holliday from The Avarna Group (who recently published a blog post on the importance of supporting single identity spaces), who assisted me in creating a list of interview questions for each of these site visits.

Two weeks ago, I embarked on my first of three road trips this summer. My first road trip covered the upper Midwest region, where I had the honor of visiting: Montana Conservation Corps in Bozeman, MT; Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa in St. Paul, MN; and SEEDS Youth Conservation Corps in Traverse City, MI. My second road trip will focus on the Northeast region, and my third will focus on the Southwest region. For each of these trips, I’ll be guest blogging for The Corps Network, and sharing bits of my findings with all of you. I want these blog posts to serve as a catalyst for ongoing conversation related to D,E,I initiatives, so definitely reach out to these conservation corps to keep the conversations going!


Visits in the Midwest:

Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) Site Visit – Bozeman, Montana

MCC implements single identity-based crews for Native American youth and veterans. Both of these programs formed out of funding opportunities that came up in the past. For MCC, initiating and supporting these crews takes a great amount of work, but, if you qualify the assets and opportunities of these crews, it’s an incredibly important part of their D,E,I goals and objectives. These programs offer so much value to program participants and staff, and MCC highly values the new perspectives that come from these crews.

For their veterans crew, MCC invested in a number of resources for their members, including paying veterans a higher stipend ($150 more each paycheck), providing housing, offering a scholarship program, and giving actual certification for post-service job opportunities. For their initiatives with Native American youth, MCC would like to eventually create an advisory committee of Native American youth that would involve members, alumni, and partners deciding what crews need and want for their crew experiences. MCC has also been able to implement increased resources for their single identity-based crews through The Kendeda Fund.

For MCC, they would like to define the success of their crews from more of a quality than a quantity standpoint. One of their questions is, “outside of numbers, how do we tell the stories of these programs to funders?” Additionally, what recruitment and retention strategies are there for single identity-based crews?


Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa (CCMI) Site Visit – St. Paul, Minnesota

CCMI implements a Native American crew, called Restoring Relations, which began in the summer of 2015 in partnership with local community stakeholders. Additionally, while CCMI does not run a single identity-based American Sign Language Inclusion (ASL) Crew, they do provide many opportunities to ASL crew members within their existing crews.

The Restoring Relations Crew evolved out of CCMI asking how they can change their program models and their assumptions to genuinely provide worthwhile opportunities for Native American youth. CCMI hopes that, through Restoring Relations, there is a space for Native American youth to dive into nature through their own identity and history; this starts from in the very beginning of the program when, during training, crew members take a trip down the Mississippi River in traditional boats.

Like MCC, CCMI wants to strengthen more relationships with Native American leaders and have more voices at the table. Currently, their program is based in the Twin Cities, but they’re thinking about expanding in northern Minnesota once they reach capacity.

With Restoring Relations, CCMI provides time for smudging in the morning. The Corps really focuses on reflection across the board, working with crew leaders to decide what kind of reflection activities make the most sense. CCMI strives to be flexible and ready to listen in order to understand what may or may not work for the crew each year.

For CCMI, they would like more resources to educate their staff to feel more knowledgeable about multiple historical narratives of the land, places, and people that they’re working with. They’d also like to know more about recruitment and retention strategies, as well as ways to talk with staff, crew members, and youth about identities within the outdoor environment.


SEEDS Youth Conservation Corps (SEEDS) Visit – Traverse City, Michigan

SEEDS noticed that the majority of their crew members were male. In response, they decided to launch an all-women crew, called GURLS Corps (Girls United in Resilience, Leadership and Service), in hopes that this initiative would integrate more females into their organization. All the crew members identified as female and came from the foster care system.

Since SEEDS knew many of these crew members had difficult pasts, they wanted to invest in a well-trained, considerate, and understanding team leader, so they hired a woman with experience as an after-school educator. The crew model allowed for crew members to organically share stories about their foster care experiences and connect with one another. The focus of the program was not only about job experience, but also about providing an opportunity for female crew members to be in a healthy environment.

SEEDS also partners with local tribes for crew model development. Local tribes assist in recruitment and provide half the funding for the initiatives. SEEDS provides the training and materials needed for the service experiences.

Most of SEEDS’ single identity-based crew initiatives, whether focused on female, Native American, or foster care identities, form out of their partnerships with social services, schools, family courts, and tribes. SEEDS is also very conscious about how they approach their crew experiences; they’ve invested in a holistic approach that focuses on integration between social and ecological aspects (including all species).

For SEEDS, they would like resources on understanding the respective benefits of integrated and single identity-based spaces; what unique experiences come from each model, and how do you decide on one model or the other? They’d also like to see stories on how other Conservation Corps approach the work they need to do with an ecological, social, and/or STEM focus; how are Corps integrating STEM into their every day practices? Additionally, SEEDS is interested in comparing price points for their crew expenses; how much are Corps spending on training, uniforms, and supplies?


Thank you for reading! Stay tuned for my next blog post in a few weeks. If you have any questions about my research, have D, E, I resources that have worked for your crews, or would like to set up a potential site visit, please reach out to me via email at jkatcher@uoregon.edu

Corps and National Forests - Video and Blog Post

Travis Wick, an intern serving out the U.S. Forest Service Intermountain Region (Region 4), created this film about the partnerships between Corps and the Forest Service. Corps help complete mission-critical projects at National Forests throughout the country; this video specifically looks at Corps serving at Forests in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Idaho. Below, read a blog post from Wyoming Conservation Corps related to this work. 


Conservation Corps in the Rocky Mountain West

Evan Townsend, Wyoming Conservation Corps
(April 13, 2017)

FOR THOSE of us who have participated in conservation corps, we know how formative those summers or even 10 months are for our lives. Imagine crews of 4, 6, or 8 people from all over the country coming together to serve their country, communities, and public land (and waters). Young people and military veterans from all walks of life come together for a common cause – to serve others before themselves and in doing so, that service makes us better people.

Katie Woodward, a crew leader for the Utah Conservation Corps, speaks in 2016 but these words could have easily come from a member in the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930’s:

“Conservation work serves a duel purpose of one hand doing a critical part to take care of our lands but also to serve something for ourselves.”

Thanks to the U.S. Forest Service’s Travis Wick for directing this video and also to the Northwest Youth Corps for posting this. The conservation corps of the Rocky Mountain West are proud to have such great neighbors and we are proud to serve our country with them. Featured in this video are members from this video:

The Corps Network and Montana Conservation Corps Congratulate Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) on his Confirmation as Secretary of the Interior

The Corps Network and Montana Conservation Corps congratulate Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) on being confirmed as Secretary of the Interior through a 68-31 vote in the United States Senate on Wednesday, March 1, 2017.

HOPE Crew Project at Custer National Cemetery featured on Preservation Nation Blog

Article, written by David Robert Weible, appears on the Preservation Nation Blog. Published August 25, 2014.

It’s one of the most famous battles in American history. In May, 1876, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry tracked down roughly 8,000 Cheyenne and Sioux Indians in southeastern Montana and stepped into battle with about 1,800 of them. The rest, as they say, is history.

Now a small piece of that history is being restored, with help from the National Trust, The Corps Network, The Montana Conservation Corps, and the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Training Center.

138 years later to the month, the National Trust’s HOPE (Hands-On Preservation Experience) Crew program began connecting national youth corps participants with preservation projects from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to New Mexico’s Old Santa Fe Trail Building. The program will eventually bring thousands of young Americans to work on hundreds of sites, and teach them preservation craft skills from tuck pointing to carpentry, to window restoration, while restoring historic places in the process.

That’s exactly the case at the Custer National Cemetery inside the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument where a new HOPE Crew recently went to work.

Beginning July 14, a HOPE Crew comprised of members from the Montana Conservation Corps began work on the cemetery’s headstones, which mark the graves of soldiers from the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

"This HOPE crew project was very special for our veterans corps members," says Jono McKinney, President and CEO of Montnana Conservation Corps. "The opportunity to honor fallen veterans through their service restoring these headstones was personally moving. Each felt a bond through generations of service with his peers in combat. They connected to this work in such an intimate way, and found deep purpose in this HOPE project."

The crew, comprised of two ‘hitches’ of six corps members each -- including the HOPE Crew’s first all-veteran hitch representing each branch of the military -- cleaned the headstones and adjusted the height and orientation of stones to coincide with the Veterans Affairs set of standards.

"An all-veteran HOPE Crew is a great example of how the program continues to expand to engage different audiences," says Monica Rhodes, who oversees the HOPE Crew program for the National Trust. "[This type of training] is another opportunity for returning veterans to transition into an industry that could benefit from their proven leadership skills and work ethic."

During the work, which ended August 8, corpsmembers also received visits and support from two representatives from the office of Senator, Jon Tester (D-MT).

"The park really appreciates this partnership opportunity, and we were able to complete some work that we would not have been able to accomplish without the program," says Christopher T. Ziegler, Chief of Cultural and Natural Resources Management for Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. "We are excited to be a part of a program that helped train future stewards in preservation skills. After all, NPS will be the direct benefactors of this future labor force."

But it’s not just the cemetery that’s seen a bit of a makeover in the last number of years. In an effort to reflect the history of both sides of the conflict, the name of the monument was changed from Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 1991. Since then, NPS has worked alongside local Native American organizations to erect a monument to those that opposed Custer’s men and incorporate their story into the interpretation of the site.

"When the park first opened, interpretation largely focused on General Custer," says Rhodes. "With the inclusion of Native American organizations, visitors are able to experience another side of the story, allowing us to celebrate other voices in American history."

Watch a video of the Little Bighorn HOPE Crew project here.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us todayto help protect the places that matter to you.

Montana Conservation Corps Featured on the Wilderness Risk Management Conference blog

Article, written by Rahel Manna, appears on the NOLS Blog. Published August 12, 2014.

In this installment of the Wilderness Risk Management Conference blog series, we are focusing our attention on the Montana Conservation Corps (MCC). This nonprofit development program for young adults has been following in the footsteps of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, using conservation projects to foster citizenship and personal growth in its members. WRMC staff caught up with Montana Conservation Corps Program Director Lee Gault, who represented MCC at the WRMC 10 years ago, and asked him about the dynamic relationship that has been evolving between MCC and the WRMC for over a decade.

In the span of one year, the MCC, as a single branch, is able to train 300-400 participants of varying age groups and backgrounds. The different programs offered at MCC also vary greatly. One program in particular, the Veterans Green Corps, serves American military veterans who are “transitioning from military to civilian life” and “range in age from 24-35” said Gault. Using the training and exposure that the MCC program provides, many American veterans who are MCC alumni are able to transition into civilian positions and go on to work with the national parks service and the national forest service.

In addition to the veterans program, roughly 80 percent of MCC members are young adults who work on projects ranging from bioresearch and watershed restoration to trail restoration, community service, and much more. While at MCC, participants go through a maturation process brought on through challenging projects and “usually return with a firm commitment to advocate for, protect, and defend wilderness and our public lands in general” said Gault.

The MCC curriculum is designed to help members foster a deep-seated passion for the great outdoors through leadership development, technical outdoor skills, and environmental stewardship. MCC field programs hire “about 250 young adults, 18-30 years old from all over the country and all education levels,” Gault said. “All of them are AmeriCorps national service participants, and they serve varying length terms of service from a three-month summer term to a full nine months. We also serve around 150 Montana high-school-age teens in our summer Youth Service Expeditions program. They do a month-long mini-MCC experience completing most of the same work as our field crews.”

After such a longstanding commitment to attending the WRMC, we asked Gault to explain why MCC decides to send staff to the WRMC year after year. “We have found the WRMC to be the best professional development opportunity for risk management related to our field. There are topics relevant to every staff person at every level. It keeps us abreast of the state of the art in risk management, and it exposes our staff to the top thinkers and practitioners in the field,” Gault explained. “Every year we make changes and adaptations to our current practices, procedures and policies based on things we learned from the WRMC.”

Gault emphasized that the WRMC has provided a better experience for MCC participants: “[The WRMC] has helped in almost every area: screening and intake, hiring, training, leadership, field communication, in-field medical care, fostering positive crew dynamics, technical practices, emergency response, even office practices.”

As a community-empowering conservation organization, MCC stands as a great asset to the outdoor community and we are proud to have them as a contributing member of the WRMC family once again this year. If you are a community-based conservation organization, come take advantage of the opportunity to network with the knowledgeable staff from MCC and other similar organizations. Please join us at Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta, Georgia, October 1-3, 2014.

Montana Conservation Corps Restores CCC Built Fish Hatchery

Local stone mason Jimmy Plovanik assists crew members with stone wall repair Tuesday. The seven-person MCC crew made much progress on the park at Big Springs Trout Hatchery this week.

This article was originally published by the Lewistown News-Argus.

Fish hatchery park gets make-over


The Montana Conservation Corps crew working on the fish hatchery make-over includes (from left) Timothy Gillispie, Helena; Eric Barr, MCC co-leader, Florida; Taggert Street, Helena; Sharanne Dement, Great Falls; Logan Callerg, Great Falls; Albert Leavell, MCC leader, Maryland; and Amanda Knorr, Helena.
Special to the News-Argus
Wednesday, August 13, 2014 11:01 AM MDT
Editor’s Note: This week, Montana Conservation Corps volunteers came to Lewistown to assist community members with the park at Big Springs Trout Hatchery. The volunteers did not just clean up the area; they also did some stonework and landscape work.

Having MCC do this work is fitting, Gies said, as it was the Civilian Conservation Corps that constructed the park in the first place.

Most of the park facilities at the Big Springs Trout Hatchery southeast of Lewistown were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in about 1936, almost eighty years ago.

The  CCC was a public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 in the United States for unemployed, unmarried men from relief families, ages 18–25.  Robert Fechner was the head of the agency. The program was a major part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and provided unskilled manual labor jobs related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state and local governments.

Now, almost eight decades later, the Montana Conservation Corps is doing repair and renovation work at the fish hatchery park. The Montana Conservation Corps grew out of stories of men joining and serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps, stories that can be heard at coffee counters across Montana in places like the Empire Café. Tales of the accomplishments of the CCC to improve the landscape and the spirits of the young people who joined are numerous, and verging on mythical, in the best tradition of Montana.

This week, MCC workers are busy repairing the facilities built by the CCC. These MCC workers include five Montana high school students and two supervisors in their twenties. The supervisors work right along with the kids.

In two days the crew has accomplished much of the repair of rock work in the big pool, building trails and pulling weeds. They have two more days of work left. Local master stone mason Jimmy Plovanic has been right along side of this crew, showing them how to do the repair and renovation work on the stone walls. These walls are simply stacked stone, but of course, stacked in an aesthetic and lasting way. Jimmy has made a great contribution in sharing his expertise.

The project leader on the park renovation is Eric VanderBeek. Eric has been a strong leader, including working to obtain $14,000 in grant money for the project. Locals Brad McCardle, Lewistown trails manager, Clay Dunlap, retired educator, and Clint Loomis, retired educator and artist, have also worked hard on this project. All have spent countless hours on planning and implementing the project. Much credit on this project goes to Paul Pavlak a Lewistown resident who started the ball rolling on this park renovation.

Karl Gies is a member of the Big Spring Creek Watershed Association.


Boiler Plate: 
This week, Montana Conservation Corps volunteers came to Lewistown to assist community members with the park at Big Springs Trout Hatchery. The volunteers did not just clean up the area; they also did some stonework and landscape work.

Major Preservation Efforts Underway for HOPE Crew Project at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Article, written by Victoria Hill, appears in Q2 News. Published July 30, 2014.

CROW AGENCY - Settled below Last Stand Hill at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, headstones mark the graves of more than 5,000 veterans and their loved ones.

A major headstone preservation project is underway at Custer National Cemetery after decades of natural wear and tear. 

"They go through periods of freeze and thaw that deteriorate their condition," explained Christopher Ziegler, chief of resource management at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. "They sink, they settle, they get stained heavily."

It's all part of a new project by the National Trust for Historic Preservation called HOPE, or the Hands-on-Preservation-Experience.

The battlefield is one of the first national parks to participate.

"It's very hard work here in the sun," Ziegler said. "The headstones weigh around 150 pounds a piece and many of them are stuck in the ground really good and require lots of cleaning."

It takes one hour to get one headstone dug up, cleaned, settled back into the ground, leveled out.

"Almost 100 years ago, a lot of these were placed here and now they need work and it's a respect thing that we'd like to show," said U.S. Marine Corps veteran Clay Skeens. "It's definitely worth the time and effort. It is a lot of work but like I said, it's worth it."

Skeens, 30, is one of six veterans helping with preservation efforts through the Montana Conservation Corps.

When Skeens arrived to lend a hand, it was only his second time at the battlefield.

"We never got to shake these guys' hands and thank them," Skeens said. "So this is our way of thanking them for their service and just showing people that veterans help veterans whether they are alive or dead."

Crews began preservation efforts mid-July and are scheduled to continue into August. The entire project will be divided over the next four years and eventually all of the stones will receive maintenance.

"The amount of pride that I have in the groups that are doing this work, the amount of pride and satisfaction I see in the work they're accomplishing and how much we are now going to better represent the significance of this site, it just really makes me proud of all the work they're accomplishing," Ziegler said.

A total of $500,000 is budgeted to preserve all of the headstones and monuments throughout the park.

Montana Conservation Corps Rebuilds Wheeler Gulch Trail as Part of The "Fifty for the 50th" Campaign

Article, written by Laura Lundquist, appears in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Published July 26, 2014.

GALLATIN GATEWAY - Before last year, the Wheeler Gulch Trail was almost forgotten. Now it probably has the most attention of any trail in Montana with four organizations and agencies pitching in to restore it.

On Friday, seven high-school volunteers with the Montana Conservation Corps finished the fourth of seven long switchback segments of a new two-mile section of the Wheeler Gulch Trail.

The first week of their four-week stint complete, they will now move camp to their next project near Grotto Falls in the Hyalite basin.

But they're not the first crew of volunteers to work on the trail, and over the next few years, they won't be the last.

“This has been a fun project because so many groups are collaborating on it, and the Forest Service is supporting having all these groups up here,” said MCC Bozeman office manager Chris Nesset. “Wheeler hasn't been open for a long time, so last year, we worked just to find the bottom of the trail.”

The Wilderness Recreation Partnership, a local group of mountain-bike enthusiasts, wanted to expand the opportunities for bike riders outside of the Gallatin Wilderness Study Area, said spokeswoman Holly Hill.

They saw opportunity in the Wheeler Gulch Trail because they could link it into the South Cottonwood Trail and the Storm Castle Trail along the ridge top to create a challenging 18-mile loop that is close to Bozeman.

“We did three days of trail work last summer and realized that it was a much larger project than we thought,” Hill said. “The loop is the ultimate goal but it's probably a few years out.”

If the WRP needed help, this was the year to get it.

The Wilderness Act turns 50 this year so the Wilderness Society, Americorps and the Forest Service created the “Fifty for the 50th” campaign, helping to sponsor 50 conservation projects in wild areas across the country.

Because the Wheeler Gulch area is an access point to the wilderness study area and could contribute to the work of the Gallatin Community Collaborative, which is trying to determine the future of the wilderness study area, it was one of six Montana projects chosen.

Then as Sally Jewell took over as the Secretary of the Interior, she announced her intent to get more youth involved in projects sponsored by the Forest Service and National Park Service.

As part of that, Jewell announced in March that $6.7 million had been set aside to hire youth and veterans to work on public lands, a boon for the conservation corps.

That support, plus a Gallatin National Forest Resource Advisory Committee grant, allowed high school students to pick rocks and dig tree roots to level and smooth the Wheeler Gulch switchbacks for the past two weeks.

Previously, a user-made trail had made a straight steep descent into Wheeler Gulch from the area below Telegraph Ridge.

But that made for difficult hiking and caused the hillside to erode.

“The old trail dropped people straight into the drainage, but this will take them out,” Nesset said.

An excavator went in four weeks ago and dug a trail along the hillside, leaving rocks, branches and dirt piles in its wake.

For the past two weeks, student volunteers have camped at the top of the trail and slowly worked their way down each day, led by two Americorps volunteers.

“This is a little more work than I thought it would be. We're actually building a trail,” said Livingston student Surya Milner. “Hopefully I'm building muscles.”

This is Mateo Vargas' third year as an MCC youth volunteer so he knew what to expect. But he keeps coming back.

“It's fun to live out in the wilderness for a month with no technology,” Vargas said.

Forest Service employee Jeremy Kunzman, himself a former youth MCC volunteer, checks on the group's progress and lends a hand if needed. But it really hasn't been needed, Kunzman said.

“The leaders are doing an incredible job, but the kids are pretty much self-starters,” Kunzman said. “If we can get one more switchback on Saturday, that would leave only two shorter ones. Two solid days and we could be done.”

On Saturday, around a dozen WRP volunteers will return to do their part on the trail. Hill said WRP would probably organize a second volunteer day later in the summer.

Asked if they would return to help out, the MCC crew all nodded, having gelled into an efficient trail-building team. Livingston student Paulo Currie said it was a quick way to make friends.

“I'm planning to cycle it,” said Livingston student Jack Fry.


Montana Conservation Corps Spruces up Spruce Park Cabin

Article, written by Jalmer Johnson, appears on MCC KCrew Blog. Published July 14, 2014.

As this year marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Wilderness Act it seems appropriate to reflect not only upon what wilderness itself means, but also the actions we have taken to protect the wilderness over the past half century.  Our crew recently spent several weeks at Spruce Park Cabin in the Great Bear Wilderness.  The building is part of a network of cabins utilized by rangers as waypoints as they patrol the woods.  All of these cabins are more than half a century in age, and many are currently being authorized as historic buildings. 

Spruce Park cabin is among the newest of the cabins, however, due to erosion along the cliff side that overlooks the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, the cabin will soon collapse into the river.  To save the cabin the Forest Service has begun a lengthy project to move the cabin several hundred feet away from the river, and our crew was lucky enough to assist in the preparations to move, and save the cabin later in the summer.

Due to the various restrictions that come with working in a Wilderness Area (mainly the ban on anything motorized, but also the remoteness) we became very aware of the difficulties, and, at the same time, the pleasures of working exclusively with tools powered by ourselves alone.  We began by clearing the trail of fallen trees, using a crosscut saw in lieu of our chainsaws.  Our work at the cabin itself saw us assisting with projects both with experts brought in by the Forest Service, and on our own that prepared the cabin for it’s big move later in the summer. 

Accomplishing difficult tasks, such as cutting trees several feet thick or transporting thousand pound trees, with nothing but our hands was an empowering experience.  An experience that constantly reminded me of Henry David Thoreau’s famous observation from Walden: “Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.”  This, in my opinion, is both the beauty, and the importance, of the wilderness today.  Our work at the cabin allowed us to take time and admire the awesome power of the river below us, or to stop and observe the fragility of life at the finding of a dead bird.

Our work at the cabin also helped connect us with the past.  We were reminded of the work the early rangers put in to create our wilderness infrastructure in National Forests, and National Parks.  More than that we were keenly aware of the difficulties, and satisfaction felt by all who had worked with only their hands, bereft of the power provided by modern technology. 

Such an intimate connection with the land around me, and the work in front of me, is what I will remember most about my time at Spruce Park Cabin, and is not an experience I will soon forget.