On a sunny day, coming around a ridge line on a hardy hike, I asked myself, “Oh my goodness, where am I?” The youth around me—dressed up in hard hats gloves and eyewear while carrying pulaskis and rock-prying tools—remind me each day that I am in Eureka, Montana, working hard in the Kootenai National Forest to serve our country’s wilderness. On this particular day, we are maintaining a hiking trail, bejeweled all around with fresh huckleberries. I ask myself that question because I am blown away by spectacular beauty each and every day. Sprawling forests, towering mountains, rushing rivers, big sky countryside. I came out here to lead, empower, and educate a team of youth, ages 16-18. But oftentimes I learn more from them, their hard work, their positive attitudes, and their local knowledge.
Together, we do a little of everything the forest service has to offer: we conduct surveys of wildlife like frogs, fish, and birds. We clear our brush in dense forests to reduce wildfires, we secure endangered whitebark pine seedlings into the ground to improve the ecosystem, we pick up trash, install signs, breakdown old fences and build new ones, and supply hikers with a cleared trail to walk on. The youth are here to work, but they’re also here to learn what it means to be valuable community members and figure out what they can become. We’ve already gotten talks from a wildland firefighter who showed us his elaborate series of online maps and monitoring systems, a lookout person for a fire watchtower, and a group of search and rescue volunteers. Together we are growing, doing important work, and having plenty of fun.