Workers planting trees along Homestake Creek
May 22, 2012
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Vail Valley frequently plays host to celebrities and high-ranking politicos. But last week, at the request of the Eagle County Watershed Council and with the sponsorship of local AmeriCorps Vista volunteer Annelises Leland, a group of young patriotic workers quietly came into the valley. Their mission: to plant trees as part of forest regeneration and habitat enhancement. These are members of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps.
While helping with the weekly free community dinner at the Edwards Interfaith Chapel, my chance meeting with 10 young, hungry people last week led me to this story: An education on AmeriCorps and on young lives in search of something bigger than themselves.
What (or who) is AmeriCorps?
Until Thursday night, my knowledge of AmeriCorps was limited and somewhat jaded, recalling the scandal when the organization’s inspector general was fired in 2009. But there is an important story that transcends the scandal. A story of service and, I discovered, of quiet patriotism that led me to a humbling behind-the-scenes experience on the banks of Homestake Creek, planting trees for the U.S. Forest Service.
In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the National Service Act, paving the way for President Bill Clinton to sign the National and Community Service Trust Act in 1993. From this latter legislation emerged the Corporation for National Community Service from which AmeriCorps was created.
AmeriCorps is comprised of Vista (Volunteers in Service to America) and National Civilian Community Corps. The AmeriCorps’ website describes it as a “network of national service programs that provide intensive service to meet the nation’s crucial needs in education, public safety, health and the environment.” AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps is a direct, team-based residential program for men and women ages 18 to 24 providing community services from five bases across the country, including Denver. National Civilian Community Corps team members are not volunteers since they receive a modest allowance of $160 every two weeks and are provided with room and board and healthcare during their service.
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There is, however, a volunteer component of National Civilian Community Corps service requirements. In addition to their 40-hour workweeks, they must volunteer for 80 hours of community service during their term. Each member is responsible for finding volunteering opportunities in the communities they serve. Over the weekend some team members worked at the Habitat for Humanity site in Gypsum.
Homestake Creek project
The National Civilian Community Corps team arrived last week and spent most of their time assigned to the Forest Service. Their accommodations along Homestake Creek mirrored that of the early visitors to this area, but for the synthetic material of the tents. No electricity, no running water, and, their biggest deprivation, no cell service.
Twenty-year-old Christian Heyd of Olney, Md., rode with me to the worksite. As we drove the three miles of washboard dirt road, he told me how he came to this beautiful valley to help rehabilitate a habitat decimated by pine beetles and trampled by hoards of well-meaning nature-seekers. Heyd’s story is not an unusual one. While in college, money ran out and he turned to AmeriCorps as a way to “serve his country” at home. In October, he joined the Denver-based team for its service in the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas. Since then, Heyd worked with the elderly and disabled in Denver and with “cavers” in New Mexico performing cave restoration and conservation work. Now he and his teammates are planting lodgepole saplings in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area.
We came to the clearing of overturned earth between the road and creek where Forest Service employees, including District Fisheries Biologist Matt Grove and “technical advisor” Shelby Limberis, were digging holes alongside the National Civilian Community Corps team. Previously, earthmoving equipment was used to turn the soil, facilitating digging and enhancing the trees’ chances for survival. Still, the clay soil was littered with stones undisturbed for tens of thousands of years and unwilling to yield to shovels. Heavy picks, wedges and shims were needed to break rocks to prepare a healthy bed of soil for the sapling’s roots.
Grove heads the Homestake Creek Habitat Enhancement project to restore the habitat along the creek. Last October, Grove and his team submerged 200 whole dead lodgepoles in the creek to improve the fish habitat. Grove explained the trees eventually would have fallen into the water, so they chose to speed the process. The trees provide shade for the fish and places for the current to scour the bottom. The tree planting was “an afterthought” to provide a buffer between disperse (undesignated) camping sites and the fragile banks of the creek, thereby hindering erosion.
The Forest Service operates a nursery in Nebraska. There, the lodgepole pinecones taken from the banks of the creek were centrifuged and seeds removed for planting, thus ensuring the new trees would share the genetic code of the established forest. The Forest Service aims for a 75 percent survival rate, so anything to help the trees is a plus.
Before the 60-pound 4-year-old saplings could be lowered into the 18-inch holes, the soil had to be packed, during which time more stones were usually discovered. Two people were needed to guide the tree into the hole and pack the soil. Trading kitchen knives and pots for picks and shovels was a challenge. But I found working with team leader Na Bierdeman from Grand Rapids, Mich., to be worth the long drive and the dirt that now covered my jeans and hands.
Bierdeman leads in a quiet way, but she was not shy about reminding everyone to drink water while they toiled in the morning sun. Having begun volunteering in high school, she missed the opportunity to volunteer while in college. But once she had her degree in international relations from Grand Valley State University, she signed up for AmeriCorps. At 24 she is in her second and final year of the program.
As we worked together to plant the sapling, Bierdeman shared harrowing stories of her first year with AmeriCorps. Disaster relief was her team’s primary purpose. The late winter and early spring of 2011 presented them with a bevy of disasters. In a baptism by fire, they responded to the devastation St. Louis and Joplin tornadoes left in their wake. The young, mostly inexperienced workers saw it all: manning the missing persons call center, providing aid and comfort to now-homeless residents and a terror-filled stormy night driving from St. Louis to Joplin.
By 11 a.m., nearly 30 trees had been planted and it was time to move to the next spot. Their goal is to complete planting the 200 trees by the time they leave Homestake. It’s hard, backbreaking work that I could only endure for three hours. Four holes, two trees and I was done.
Where to next?
Today, the team returns to the Eagle River to plant trees for the Watershed Council. They will bid farewell to Eagle County on Friday, but only after another weekly community dinner in Edwards. A great opportunity to meet them! Next on their itinerary is a week of debriefing and rest in Denver before heading to Tulsa, Okla. Barring any tornadoes triggering a need for their services, the team will work at a camp for children ages 7 through 17 whose parents or guardians are incarcerated. Noble work for sure.
Graduation is July 27. Shortly after the ceremony, Bierdeman will drive her teammates that she lead for nine months to DIA, wish them a good life and go on with hers as she heads to her next volunteering work in Costa Rica. She is passionate about the need to serve others as a representative of America. No doubt this young woman and those whose lives she touched, including mine, will be all the better for having known her.
These young people will leave lasting symbols of their hard work and dedication. I look forward to returning to Homestake Creek and watching the trees grow, hoping the young people who planted them continue to grow through their service to others.