"Grass"roots youth movement

What I wrote for The Gazette today:

Kirsten Davidson is from California. A graduate of Brigham Young University in Utah, Davidson explains that when she came to New York to work in public relations with the office of parks she quickly realized that the state was more than just New York City. “I always have to tell people from home that there are squirrels here,” she said.

At the same time, Katie Christman pushes a piece of blonde hair out of her face and sighs as she watches a group of students digging holes for signposts. “I’m slowly learning that you can’t control everything,” she said. “Everything is coming together though.”

Davidson and Christman are just two of the college-aged volunteers helping to improve the trails at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Five Rivers Environmental Education Center in Delmar. The students are working through the Student Conservation Association and are not only improving trails but improving their leadership skills and self-confidence as well. Two traits that are vital to today’s post-college work force, according to SCA program manager, Kathy Schmidt.

Christman is the SCA Hudson Valley Americorps intern who organized 22 members of the SCA into 5 teams that would carry-out various projects to help improve hiking trails in Delmar from June 16-19. On Tuesday the SCA members swung picks and Pulaskis in a large-scale trail building project. The SCA Hudson Valley Americorps is comprised of young adults from all over the United States who work in the region for 10 months to gain green job skills and experience.

The SCA is a nationwide conservation corps of anyone from the ages of 15 and up, though it’s composed mostly of high school, college, and graduate students. Through the SCA students gain hands-on conservation experience from urban communities to national parks. Students learn the value of team work, as well as developing leadership skills that can later help them in the workforce, especially now with the new focus on sustainability in industry.

Students learn how much work can get done by a team with a leader. “Once we removed 50 tons of garbage from a site,” Schmidt said. “No one could believe how we got it all done, let a lone how quickly we got it done.” Schmidt says the SCA also built a 26-foot bridge in Saratoga Spa State Park in just under a week which also shocked participants.

Projects for trail building at Five Rivers include putting up interpretive signs (signs which explain things about the trail like plants and wildlife), measuring the slope and gradient of trails, clearing away debris, and evening out the land. The SCA has one main goal for this project. “We want to make the trails as accessible as possible for as many people as possible,” Christman said.

At Five Rivers SCA members will connect the Wild Turkey Trail to the Joel Parcel, improve Fordham’s Cross, Beaver Tree, and Woodlot trails, as well as assess all the trails for accessibility and compliance with specifications outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Our goal is to improve the slopes of the trails and create specific measurements for the difficulty of all the trails, instead of just labeling them ‘easy’ and ‘hard’,” Carole Fraser, the Universal Access Program Coordinator from the DEC, said. The Universal Access Program works on making hiking trails as user-friendly as possible to a wide range of people, including those with disabilities.

“What’s easy for some may not be easy for others. We want people to be able to choose which trails to use so they’re as accessible as possible,” Fraser said.

DEC staff, who also run after school conservation programs, and environmental summer camps, provide SCA members with training in the Universal Trail Assessment Process which uses a variety of tools and specific measurements to collect information about the trails’ surface type and cross slope so that alterations to make them safer and more accessible can be performed.

Joanna Chan graduated from Vassar College in 2008 with a degree in environmental studies. She is now the Universal Assessment intern for SUNY Cortland, putting her degree and her passions to good use. “It’s really important that the trails are accessible to more people,” she said. Awareness for local trails is also an important goal.

According to Davidson, NYS has an interesting dichotomy in that the metropolis of New York City is not far from what she calls, some of the most beautiful forests in the world. “New York State already does a great job with conservation, we just want to make the conservation reach every preserve. We want the forests in New York to be as cohesive as possible.”

According to Chan, who is from Brooklyn, it’s nice to service an area that has always been in her backyard. She said, “It’s nice to work together with a group of people towards a bigger goal. I’ve learned a lot from everyone, and the improvements we’re making are amazing.”

The SCA is planning another similar project at Grafton Lake State Park in September.

Reach Gazette intern Caitlin Tremblay at 374-4141, ext. 4080.

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