MOIESE — Four Missoula high school students worked their way around fallen trees, thorny bushes and bear scat Tuesday while they helped federal workers preserve Ponderosa pines on the National Bison Range.
The students will spend the majority of their summer aiding in similar projects throughout Missoula and in its surrounding areas as part of the Youth in Restoration program managed by the Missoula County Weed District and Extension office.
“I started this program because I would have loved to have this kind of opportunity when I was their age,” said Steffany Rogge-Kindseth, the education coordinator for extension office.
For the past seven years, Youth in Restoration has sent crews of four high school students to work alongside federal, state and local organizations for eight weeks of hands-on experience in conservation and resource management.
This season’s crew started their summer with a four-day backpacking trip through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, where they joined in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation’s construction of a new turnpike, or trail. They also paddled around Seeley Lake examining pond weeds for invasive species, cleared rock dams in the Rattlesnake Recreation Area and collected scrap metal and loose fencing in local parks.
“The Bob Marshall hike was tough, but it was fun,” said Will Walker, a 17-year-old student at Willard Alternative High School.
“One of the things I require from all of the organizations that we work with is to not have the crew just pulling weeds,” Rogge-Kindseth said. “Even though they will be pulling noxious weeds in the program, it’s not the only thing they’ll be doing.”
For Tuesday’s project, two biotechnicians led the four students through a wooded hillside in search of Douglas firs to be marked for removal. Clearing out Douglas firs is part of a range-wide effort to promote and maintain the growth of Ponderosa pines.
“You can tell the difference between the two, because the Ponderosa has what we call ‘puzzle bark,’” said Amanda Berens, one of the biotechnicians with American Conservation Experience.
During their hike on the range, Berens told the crew to keep an eye on firs that looked like they might fall and affect any nearby pines during an upcoming prescribed burn.
“It’s great to be spending my summer working outdoors,” said Faith Wells, who will be going into her junior year at Hellgate High School at the end of August.
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Wells echoed the response of her three fellow crew members, whom she said have become like “little cousins.” All four walked with a can of bear spray, and found several pieces of backbone off a large animal while scaling the hillside.
“I wanted to study foreign affairs after I graduated, but now I’m starting to reconsider,” Wells said after wrapping a length of orange tape around a Douglas fir.
Konner White, the youngest crew member at 14, already has plans to work in conservation.
“I like off-road trucking, and I want to be an advocate for ethical use of the wilderness,” said White, whose father works for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
For one of the last projects of the summer, the students will gather insects to be utilized as “bio controls.” The insects they collect will be released on noxious plants as a tool for curbing their population.
“I didn’t even know what a bio control was until I started this program,” said 15-year-old Kally Olsen.
Along with learning about bio controls, digging a trench in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and pulling up pond weeds in Seeley Lake, Olson has been able to use her time spent in the woods for the past few weeks adding to her collection of bone specimens.
“For the past few weeks, I’ve been able to learn about fields that I didn’t even know existed,” she said.
“These kids are working 30 to 35 hours a week. There’s lots of opportunity to make a difference and get exposed to all kinds of careers,” Rogge-Kindseth said.
“And they’re making good money.”