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Turning over a new leaf; Georgia youngsters learn hands-on conservation

LEAF youth learn conservation first-hand. Melody Edwards of Wyoming Public Radio (lower left) interviews, from left, Lisa Thomas, LEAF mentor, Carrie Peters, ranch manager, Alisa Walton, intern, Alicia Griffin, intern, and Amy Zimmermann, mentor, and Angel Carter, intern, near the top of the hill. LEAF youth learn conservation first-hand. Melody Edwards of Wyoming Public Radio (lower left) interviews, from left, Lisa Thomas, LEAF mentor, Carrie Peters, ranch manager, Alisa Walton, intern, Alicia Griffin, intern, and Amy Zimmermann, mentor, and Angel Carter, intern, near the top of the hill. Tribune photo by Gib Mathers

Some city kids turned over a new leaf in the Big Horn Basin conservation field this summer.

Five interns and two mentors from The Nature Conservancy’s LEAF — Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future — worked at Heart Mountain and two other locations in the Basin last month. The Tribune caught up with the tireless youngsters at the Conservancy’s Heart Mountain Ranch on July 28.

All will be seniors this fall at Arabia Mountain High School in Lithonia, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta.

Intern Alisa Walton was looking at pre-med following high school graduation. Her immediate LEAF goal was to learn more about the environment and how she could make a positive impact in conservation, she said.

It’s a month-long program. The interns are paid $9.32 per hour.

“You could say we’re earning our money,” Walton said.

The program provides summer internships for students in nature preserves across the nation and helps high school educators share best practices and scientific resources during the academic year, according to The Conservancy.

“The program has had a tremendous impact on urban youth — opening their eyes to career possibilities, building self-confidence, work skills and conservation literacy,” Tracey Stone, Conservancy spokesperson, stated in a news release. “The teens will identify, clip and bag invasive plants that are taking over valuable wildlife habitat and limiting available forage for both wildlife and livestock.”

They worked four days on the ranch removing weeds, planting willows and improving the trail. They also worked two days at The Conservancy’s Tensleep Preserve collecting insects and removing more weeds. Their last day was July 29, removing fence and picking up trash for the Bureau of Land Management.

The LEAF youth were doing their best to improve Heart Mountain, but so were other volunteers on July 25, erecting what will become interpretive signs located up and down the summit trail.

Marathon Oil Company employees enjoyed a “Living our values work day.” Marathon sponsors its employees to undertake conservation-type projects, said employee Ben Borcher. But it isn’t all work.

They also take team hikes. Improving locations like Heart Mountain is fine with Borcher and his Marathon colleagues.

“It’s a place we like to recreate at as well,” Borcher said, grabbing a shovel to backfill a post hole.

The girls kept their noses to the grindstone, but they saw some sights too.

They have visited Yellowstone National Park, gone white water rafting and horseback riding, seen a rodeo, checked out the Park County Fair and visited Northwest College, Montana State University and Rocky Mountain College in Billings, said intern Angel Carter.

“I love it,” Carter said. “It’s amazing.”

The girls’ consensus was Wyoming is different than Georgia. Shopping and dining are limited in Wyoming. In Atlanta, they enjoy having shopping malls and restaurants nearby, Walton said.

Intern Alicia Griffin said she is accustomed to far more development and not so much open space. Carter said she enjoys gazing at Heart Mountain in the morning.

Intern Keyarria Mack has learned about invasive weeds, wildlife and livestock, she said. Acceptance to LEAF demands homework.

To apply the applicant must maintain a 3.0 grade point average or better, write multiple essays, and, once they are enrolled in the internship, maintain a journal while working in the field, Mack said.

Mack’s future sights are set for the University of South Carolina, Columbia, where she planned to study environmental or electrical engineering, she said.

It stands to reason that the objective of a ranch owned by The Conservancy is conservation. Still, Griffin said she didn’t realize so much effort was invested in it.

There is more to conservation than yanking weeds or unwanted fence, it also entails teamwork.

“I’ve learned to work better with people,” Griffin said.

Looking at the stars

Prior to her experience in Wyoming, Griffin had seen bison only on Animal Planet or in books. Seeing a wild animal in the flesh validates what she learned, Griffin said.

Intern Jacelyn Moore liked Wyoming’s small population. In the city, seeing stellar constellations is not possible. “I like looking at the stars sometimes,” she said.

Still, Moore admits to being a city girl and was unaccustomed to how quiet rural Wyoming is. She learned what older folks have already discovered.

“You could retire here,” she said. But she first plans to attend medical school.

Lisa Thomas, from Carbondale, Ill., served as a mentor to the girls and enjoyed watching them grow and combine what they read in books with their real life experiences, she said.

Working the land is far more educational than passing through as a tourist, Thomas added.

Mentor Amy Zimmermann, from Flagstaff, Ariz., is partial to LEAF.

“I think it’s an amazing program,” she said.

Zimmermann said she has a passion for conservation, but also enjoys watching the girls. “There’s a lot of maturity in this group,” she said. 

Carrie Peters, who manages Heart Mountain Ranch with her husband, Brian, tasked them with attacking houndstongue weeds on the ranch that day.

Melodie Edwards from Wyoming Public Radio joined the group. She walked up and down the gully where the girls worked documenting their efforts and perceptions with a microphone. The ladies plunged through waist-high grass in the gully that seemed to wind its way endlessly under a vast sky of wispy clouds sweeping to infinity while Heart Mountain sat on its perch atop grassy foothills. The girls slogged on, clipping weeds and placing the remains in trash bags to prevent the weeds from spreading.

Voices resonated up the draw with youthful vibrancy.

This is the second year LEAF kids worked at Heart Mountain, Peters said. The girls want to be on the ranch and they worked hard.

“Great kids,” she said. “This group has been a lot of fun.”

“We love Carrie,” Carter said.

Wyoming might net at least one return visit, maybe more.

“Since coming here I want to come back again,” Walton said.

“A recent survey shows nearly 40 percent of interns applied to one of the colleges they visited during the LEAF program,” Stone said.

Carter is seriously considering MSU, Billings or Northwest College. She’s already picked her roommates.

“... and, I’m going to live with Carrie and Brian (Peters),” Carter said.

“In exchange for clipping houndstongue,” Peters said smiling.

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