Ashland High School senior Shawna Sullivan, 17, stopped scraping the thick forest duff down to the bare earth to take a breather.
"This is pretty new to me," she acknowledged. "But my mom majored in environmental studies and I wanted to explore her field and find out what it entails. I'm also interested in botany."
She is one of 20 juniors and seniors from Ashland, Phoenix and Medford school districts handpicked from nearly 60 applicants to participate in the first Ashland Watershed Summer Youth Training and Employment Program.
"I wanted to come out here and get this experience of doing things on the ground to improve the environment," Sullivan said as she picked up her hazel hoe to resume work. "I want to learn more about the forest and how it works."
The four-week program that began July 15 is being offered by the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, a nonprofit group formed in 1995 to help restore ecosystems and sustain rural communities in southwest Oregon and far northwestern California. The program is the result of a collaborative effort that includes both private and public entities.
The youths spent the day cutting a fire line around a roughly 50-acre unit on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest overlooking Ashland. The area was helicopter logged as part of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project aimed at reducing wildfire threat through thinning while improving forest health.
"The kids are putting a fire line around the whole unit, which will be underburned this fall," explained Lomakatsi executive director Marko Bey, referring to a type of burning in which only the forest floor and shrubs burn. "They are also pulling the duff back from the large legacy trees so the fire doesn't kill the trees."
The program, which pays participants $10 an hour, provides young people with hands-on learning experience and with an environmental education, Bey said.
"We are using the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project as a living laboratory for higher education," he said. "Our staff has designed this in a way in which the kids will get exposure to a lot of agency career paths — soil science, botany, hydrology, wildlife biology, Native American ecological knowledge.
"And we are also treating fuels," he added. "This is work that needs to be done."
Before the program concludes Aug. 8, the crew will have hand-piled logging slash, worked to control erosion and help stabilize stream banks, restore riparian vegetation, remove noxious weeds, help restore northern spotted owl habitat and more.
During the four weeks they spend immersed in ecological restoration, they learn their way around the woods while eating dust, draining countless water bottles and dodging an occasional angry yellowjacket.
Today they will be thinning vegetation as part of an oak restoration project in the watershed.
"The idea of the program is to take a very holistic approach to the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project," observed Leah Schrodt, Lomakatsi's outreach and communications manager. "Education and youth engagement has consistently been a foundation of what we do. We engage the entire community in the process."
Nearly every work day ends with a presentation on the subject at hand by an expert from the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, city of Ashland, Southern Oregon University, Oregon State University Extension Service, The Nature Conservancy or the Klamath Bird Observatory, she noted.
Land resource agencies applaud the program, said Paul Galloway, spokesman for the national forest.
"We appreciate what Lomakatsi is doing," he said. "These kinds of programs are really critical in getting people interested in natural resources, getting them exposed to a variety of different professions. We want to get them thinking about this a future career path."
Participants were told several months before the program began to get into shape for the work ahead.
"That helped a lot," said Alondra Esquizel, 17, a 2013 graduate of South Medford High School. "My endurance is much better than it would have been.
"I don't necessarily want to work outdoors," she added. "But I want to be a children's counselor and work somewhat with nature therapy. I want to get kids out in nature more. I know I feel better when I'm out here."
Class mate Efrain Gonzalez, 18, who plans to attend Rogue Community College, said he jumped at the chance to get into the program.
"I wanted to try this out, and I wanted an outdoor job," he said. "This gives me an idea of what to expect."
Although he had never before built a fire line or piled slash, he has worked in construction.
"This is a little harder," he said. "But I like it."
Harbor Engle, 17, a senior at Ashland High School, also found the work invigorating. He was cutting fire line with a Pulaski.
"I'm becoming more interested in what humans have done to this ecosystem, how detrimental we have been," he said. "It feels good to be part of something to reverse that."
"I want to help the earth any way I can," he added. "I don't know what I will be doing yet. I'm figuring it out as I go. But this kind of work makes me happy. I really like doing this. I'm privileged to be up here."
Kody Burton, 16, a junior at South Medford High School, agreed. He hopes to become a game warden.
"Even though a game warden's job deals with protecting wildlife, this is the first step getting into the door of the government and the Forest Service," he said. "This also deals with protecting the habitat. And it gets me outside."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at email@example.com.