Students go off-grid for second year in a row for Youth Trail Corps

This year's Youth Trail Corp met at Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center on June 6 before embarking on a four-week camping and trail maintenance paid internship program on sections of the Bartram Trail. From left: Brent Martin, director of the Blue Ridge Bartram Trail Conservancy, Cameron Strickland, Duggan Benson, Jacob Rickles, Estela Acevedo-Ruiz, Emily rodman, Noah Smith, Taran Branscum, and Kelsey Mortensen, trails wilderness volunteer coordinator for the Nantahala National Forest Ranger District.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer 

Blue Ridge Bartram Trail Conservancy (BRBTC) and the Macon County School System’s STEM Program developed the summer program Youth Trail Corps, which is in its second year. On June 6, six students, three from Macon County and three from outside the county, met at Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center to pack up gear with representatives from Southeast Conservation Corps (SECC) and head into the woods. Specifically, the crew will camp and work on sections of the Bartram Trail during the month of June. 

Jennifer Love, STEM coordinator, along with Brent Martin, BRBTC director, secured around $100,000 of funding through writing grants and soliciting donations from Macon County School System (Career Activator grant through Career and Technology Education), National Forest Service, and Nantahala Health Foundation. Paid internships enable six high school students, chosen through an application and interview process, to receive meals, $10 an hour pay, and a $400 outdoor equipment/clothing allotment from a local outfitter in Franklin. 

Love said, “[Youth Trail Corps] is a wonderful program for youth – one that will help with nature deficit disorder,” which is a modern, non-clinical term describing the results of little time spent out of doors. “Kids benefit from going out into the woods and getting off of social media,” she opined. 

Martin explained that students will spend four weeks on the historic Bartram Trail in sections such as Jones Gap to Scaly Mountain and Wayah Bald to Nantahala Lake. SECC, based in Chattanooga, Tenn., teaches students camping and cooking skills as well as proper trail maintenance.

“It’s certainly a better opportunity for these students than working indoors at a fast-food restaurant, for example,” said Martin. “Plus, they are learning practical life skills, team work, and about career opportunities available in a recreation-based economy like ours.”

Periodically, Martin will meet up with the students on the trail during June and access their progress, as well as answer questions about Bartram Trail’s history, etc. 

Estela Acevedo-Ruiz, a rising senior at Franklin High School, participated in last year’s Youth Trail Corps and was chosen to go off-grid again this summer. “They took our phones the first day last year, and I was a little apprehensive,” she admitted. “But it was actually a relief. I felt 10 times better without it, and I actually used it less when we got back. I realized I needed a break from it, and working in the woods, being distracted, feeling a sense of accomplishment from all the work – it was amazing. I loved being mentally and physically challenged, and the crew became like a family … very supportive and encouraging.”

Acevedo-Ruiz plans to attend college and work toward a business and entrepreneurship degree so that she can manage or own an outdoor recreation-oriented company. 

Seeing her off at the Cowee School meeting site on June 6 was her brother Christopher, a sixth grader at Mountain View Intermediate, who said he plans to apply for Youth Trail Corps when he turns 16, which is the minimum age to request an application. “I will enjoy being outside and making new friends,” he said. 

Students camp for two weeks, have a weekend break, and then camp for another two weeks. During the four weeks, various representatives from conservation nonprofits, the National Forest Service, environmental research firms, and more, find the group on the trail and spend time sharing information and answering questions about potential outdoor-oriented careers. 

“And then our trail maintenance volunteers will go out and work with them because the students cannot operate chainsaws, but our volunteers are chainsaw certified,” said Martin. 

He added, “The goal with the Youth Trail Corps program is to really try to build a workforce for the landscape around us – to get young people interested in and invested in their natural surroundings.”

“This program helps them understand career opportunities in the region,” said Love. “Anyone interested in the outdoors can work at a nonprofit, in ecotourism, in ecological research. There are many entities that utilize public lands. We want to give students a glimpse into what they could do in the area, so they don’t feel like they have to leave after high school or not come back if they go away to college.” 

Love shared that four work days planned during the school year help orient the Youth Trail Corps students with trail skills. “These work days help familiarize them with the work they will be doing in June. Plus, being on the Bartram Trail makes the youth understand its historical significance so that they might be engaged and consider it an important part of their community.”   

After the high schoolers return from camping and working on the Bartram Trail, the funds raised will support six young adults who will work for four additional months with SECC. “They are all chainsaw certified and will work throughout the 100-plus miles of the Blue Ridge portion of the Bartram Trail, from Georgia up past Nantahala Lake.” This group will also be paid, and they receive the $400 equipment/clothing allotment.

“It’s huge that we were able to raise the funds necessary to support these crews,” said Martin.