Teens’ summer of weed-pulling

Written by Jessica Cejnar August 17, 2012 06:14 pm

Sunset students hired to go after invasive plants

Sunlight plays on the back of Dominic Uhreen’s head as he concentrates on his work, oblivious to the Tuesday morning traffic speeding down U.S. Highway 199.

The 17-year-old, clad in black work pants and a khaki shirt, bends over, grasps a slender stem with gloved hands and pulls. Seconds later, Uhreen gathers up a long English ivy vine, thick as a rope, powerful enough to suffocate a tree, and adds it to the pile of others he has pulled.

Uhreen is one of eight Sunset High School students who are spending their summer clearing public lands of Scotch broom and English ivy. They work eight hours a day, five days a week for minimum wage and high school credit. They are already surpassing their goal of pulling up 20 acres’ worth of the invasive plants by summer’s end.

“It’s nice,” Uhreen said. “It’s a good opportunity to be out with friends and be able to get exercise instead of sitting at home.”

The students will likely exceed their goal by 1-2 acres, said Ross Morgan, a California Conservation Corps intern who has been working with the students.

“At the beginning of the season it was pretty daunting,” he said. “I didn’t know how long the students would be able to sustain the work. By midway through it looked like we were going to make it, but it was going to be close. We made it last week.”

Most of the students’ time has been spent in the Smith River National Recreation Area between Hiouchi and Gasquet, Morgan said. On Tuesday they were at the Gasquet Ranger Station clearing English ivy off a rock wall that Morgan said was built by the original Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

The students also work on private land adjacent to U.S. Forest Service property. During the school year, Morgan said, he’s been at Sunset High doing vocational education and conservation education. 

When they haven’t been pulling weeds this summer, the students have acted as docents at Sunset High School, leading visitors down a student-built interpretive trail and zip-line course through 3 1/2 acres of second-growth redwood trees, said teacher John Murphy. 

“Our Sunset kids were trained on how to use these tools safely, how to identify species and out of those kids that were interested, they went through a formal interview process and had to fill out applications,” Murphy said. “The applications were screened and from that we got our eight kids that were our summer work crew.”

Known as the Del Norte Unified School District’s continuation high school, Sunset High staff members are trying to reinvent the facility as an outdoor education school. This would provide more opportunities for students who learn best in a hands-on environment, Murphy said.

Sunset High School put these students to work using a $50,000 Resource Advisory Committee grant and two grants from the Pacific Area Coast Teaching Innovation Network, which is funneled through the University of California, Davis.

The RAC grant has allowed Sunset High School to pay the eight students for the work they do, Murphy said. The grant also pays for Morgan’s salary. Murphy said the school is seeking a second RAC grant to continue the program next summer.

Through the UC Davis grants, Sunset High staff learned how to be canopy tour facilitators, Murphy said. Staff members learned the principles of “Leave No Trace,” the nationally recognized guide to interacting in the wilderness, and how to make art with nature. Teachers passed that knowledge on to their students and together they created a curriculum for third-, fifth- and seventh-graders.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is make this like a field trip venue for elementary kids,” he said. “As money dries up, there’s less funding available to send kids to outdoor school. We want to provide a service to elementary kids in environmental and redwood ecosystem education (and) we want to give our kids an opportunity to work as facilitators with the younger kids. It’s a good experience for our guys.”

Uhreen said when he applied for the job, he had to go through a panel interview with the principal and his instructors. He and his fellow workers then went to Patrick’s Creek to get an idea of what the work would entail, as well as to give the principal a chance to see them work. 

“It was a little nerve wracking,” Uhreene said. “But it was good experience too.”

Maria Raya, who is also 17, began attending Sunset last year when she overheard the principal talking about the summer jobs.

Usually, Raya said, she gets involved in projects like Building Healthy Communities, but felt the manual labor aspect of this project would be a challenge. In addition to working with the U.S. Forest Service, Raya added that she works with the zipline tour.

“It’s a good opportunity to put on a resume,” she said. “Having this experience will help me get a job.”

According to Morgan, one of the hardest parts for the students is to realize that even after all the work they put in to pull the weeds, the work is not done.

“Even if we pulled all the ivy it will be back again next year,” he said. “You make peace with the fact that you’re working so you could come back and do more work next year and that it’s worth doing.”

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