Youth Conservation Corps Gets to the Root of Lake County Conservation

Article, written by Dan Moran, appears in Lake County News - Sun Times. Published July 17, 2014. 

The benefits of working outside during the summer were obvious on a perfect morning, but the adults who visited Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) at Nippersink Forest Preserve on Thursday were given a couple of warnings: Watch out for the mosquitoes and poison ivy.

Those are just two of the challenges that accompany tasks like cutting paths through forests for new trails, or cultivating and transplanting native vegetation, or waging the ongoing war against buckthorn and other invasive plants.

YCC board members and benefactors for the non-profit agency spent Thursday taking an annual tour of a half-dozen preserves, where high school and college students have been working since early June on restoration projects.

“As you know by now, this is not an easy job, right? This is not a walk in the park,” said YCC board chairman Jim Flury, drawing laughter from the workers clearing brush from a woodland trail on the west side of Nippersink in Round Lake. “So what motivated you to do this?”

“Well, I really like working outdoors, so when I found this on the jobs board at my high school, I thought it sounded really cool,” said Emily Schlebecker, a 2014 Mundelein High School graduate who plans to study wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. “They had a brief description of all the jobs we would do, and it sounded awesome.”

Miguel Jaimes, an incoming senior at Vernon Hills High School, told the group that “I had an environmental science course I was going to take over the summer, and it was cancelled. But I wanted to see if I could still do something outside, be active and help the environment out, so I went to the Lake County Forest Preserve’s website and applied.”

The Waukegan-based YCC is known for its year-round construction program for at-risk teens and young adults, and executive director Robert Shears said the organization’s summer program hires around 38 county residents between the ages of 16 and 18 to perform various natural resource and construction projects.

“We do a lot of focus on conservation work,” Shears said. “We try to engage construction-type work with conservation as we teach them skills.”

According to Mike Tully, the forest preserve’s director of operations and safety, the YCC’s partnership with the district dates back to the 1970s, when it was a federally-funded program. Following budget cuts in the early 1980s, the private sector stepped in to cover expenses, which include current hourly wages between $8.25 and $8.50 per hour.

“It was a great program, and the forest preserve didn’t want to lose it, so business leaders in the community formed a Youth Conservation Corps committee to raise funds,” said Tully, adding that the committee became a separate non-profit agency in the 1990s.

Work in 2014 has included everything from painting bridges at the Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest to setting up first-aid and spectator tents at the Lakewood Forest Preserve’s annual Civil War Days festival in Wauconda. Workers have also found themselves maintaining deer fences, installing boardwalks and applying organic herbicide to take out invasive weeds.

Rich Baker of Lindenhurst, a three-year corps member who now works as the leader of a crew at the Rollins Savanna in Grayslake, said this summer’s below-normal temperatures have been a blessing in disguise.

“This has been the best year in the YCC since I’ve been here. It’s been so nice and cool,” said Baker as a team of a half-dozen workers planted native wildflower seedlings in the savanna’s five-acre nursery. “Last summer, we were melting out here.”

Schlebecker said she doesn’t even mind the hours kept by the corps: 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day.

“I’m a runner, so I’ve gone to summer running camps that had us out pretty early. This just makes you get up a little earlier than that,” she said. “And this way, when school starts back up, you won’t be as groggy in the morning.”