Speaking with Thomas Hark is like talking to one of your favorite professors. My 30-minute phone conversation with him was full of inspiring moments, eloquent anecdotes and funny little quips. His story just poured out of him as he answered all of my questions without me even having to ask them. By the end of the call I was more in love with the Corps than ever before. This man has passion.
So it’s no surprise that Thomas is one of this year’s Legacy Achievement Award winners. This award is given each year to Corps leaders who have served 20 or more years and made a significant contribution to the Corps world. Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa feels lucky to have been a part of his Corps journey.
In 1984, Thomas was hired as our Summer Camp Director. Drawn to a program model that promotes small, diverse teams, he paved the way for our current Summer Youth Corps (SYC) program that engages young people with varying abilities and backgrounds. Today, about 15% of SYC participants are Deaf or hard of hearing. Even after he moved on to other opportunities, Thomas used his expertise to help us when we needed it the most: to assist in our transition to a nonprofit.
Thomas never backs down from a challenge. When his job title didn’t give him the clout to attend a conference on how to start a Youth Conservation Corps, he volunteered as a driver in order to network with professionals in the field. When the opportunity arose to start a Corps in Vermont, he left Minnesota with his bike, Duluth Pack and Mac computer and founded the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps with an appropriation of just one dollar. His mission was, and continues to be, to create conservation and leadership development programs that can stand the test of time.
The meandering Nemadji River flows through northeastern Minnesota, crosses into Wisconsin and empties into Lake Superior, at a point just a few miles south of the city of Superior. It took a major hit in 1992, when a Burlington Northern train derailed and dumped 30,000 gallons of highly toxic aromatic hydrocarbons into its waters, to the great detriment of its fish and wildlife. And thanks to glacial melting thousands of years earlier, it was also the recipient of tons of red clay silt that its flowing waters would carry to Lake Superior and create havoc for ever-larger ships that, in much more recent times, needed deeper water to avoid hitting bottom. Dredging was expensive – all the red clay silt made it more so – and the work interfered with the smooth flow of commerce at the port.
A collaboration between Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa (CCMI), the U.S. Army Corps and Engineers and the Carlton County Soil and Water District (SWCD) used science, engineering and some brawn to control the silt, but the bigger success may have been the impression to project made on the CCMI crew.
A circa-1970 attempt to fix the Nemadji was to build red clay dams that stopped the water flow so the silt in the water could drop to the bottom of several man-made ponds. This worked until it didn’t: Over time, the dams failed, the water flowed and the red clay silt made its way to Lake Superior.
Adding to the Nemadji’s problems was a watershed that had been heavily logged, leaving little there to control erosion. Its red clay banks were unstable, and fast-flowing water made it difficult for any plantings to take root. The red clay silt reduced water quality for drinking and recreation and restricted light penetration needed for any aquatic plantings trying to get established.
The objective of the 2016 project was an enduring river repair. Working from a “Natural Stream Design” that uses science and engineering to write a blueprint to manage red clay silt and “reboot” the river to make it behave in a less destructive way, the SWCD and Army Corps of Engineers first created meanders to reduce the energy in the water. New food plains also gave high water somewhere to go, instead of confining its flow to a narrow area that would cause faster water movement that would agitate sediment and increase erosion.
The CCMI crew did the heavy lifting, transporting and placing rocks on the river banks to reduce erosion and building “stream vanes” that directed water flow away from the banks.
Natalya Walker led that five-person crew and remarked on the benefits of working with the engineers.
“We hadn’t worked with engineers before, and they provided a great and refreshing new perspective on how to approach management strategies,” she said. “We were able to see the calculations that went into the stream bed design and the importance of the way we placed the rocks. We received a crash course in fluid dynamics and erosion control. That experience was hands-down memorable.”
She also corroborated a life lesson: Any honest work done well is honorable work.
“Something else we enjoyed was the local soils. It was an environment we had never worked in before,” she continued. “We realized that even though the work we do is ‘manual labor,’ it's important, impactful work.”
Finally, she and her crew learned something they can take beyond their time with CCMI.
“We can never approach two projects the same way,” she noted. “Each scenario requires its own, individualized method. As we worked in multiple areas, this concept became more and the more clear as we laid rock in each area very differently in an attempt to receive the same outcome; erosion control through directed water flow.”
In the end, the CCMI crew left a river in better shape than the one they found. It could be said the river did the same for them.
Preston is a quaint town of 1,300, located in southeastern Minnesota, about a dozen miles from the Iowa border. The community does good tourism business, drawing those who enjoy shopping and dining as well as those who fish trout in the Root River and enjoy its photo-worthy bluffs. Preston calls itself “Minnesota’s Trout Capital,” and the Root’s south branch is a designated trout stream. Protecting the Root is an environmental responsibility, but a healthy river is also important to the town’s livelihood.
When the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency determined the south branch of the Root was “impaired for aquatic life use due to turpidity” (i.e., a troubling amount of gunk in the water), the Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) knew the culprits were two stormwater ponds, in front of the County Office Building, that drained to the river. It was a project made-to-order for The Conservation Corps, whose five-person Rochester Aspens crew produced a high-functioning, low-maintenance retention basin that solves a multitude of problems but, most important, improves drainage into the Root and assures a level of water quality that fortifies the river’s allure to anglers and others. The Conservation Corps provides hands-on environmental stewardship and service-learning opportunities to youth and young adults from diverse backgrounds while accomplishing conservation, natural resource management and emergency response work.
The existing stormwater ponds were little more than grass pits with angled sides that allowed water to run to existing drain pipes. There were labor costs for mowing and weed whipping. Poor access presented a safety issue. Drainage was inadequate, which allowed sediment to drain to the river and algae to grow in the ponds. Erosion had adversely affected neighboring yards.
The Conservation Corps crew began by removing the grass and followed with a tiller that loosened and aerated the soil underneath. Then came several layers of a mulch-sand-dirt mixture that would filter particulates out of the water as it flowed through. This meant water that got to the river was far cleaner than before. A mulch-only layer topped what was now a highly functioning retention basin, and low-maintenance native plantings completed the project.
Especially given the pond’s location in the heart of town, the SWCD saw an opportunity to educate County personnel and the public about stormwater treatment. The Conservation Corps installed signage that identifies the various components of the basin and describes how each contributes to the cleaner water now flowing to the river.
The Fillmore SWCD – and the community – are thrilled with the outcome.
“The Conservation Corps crew members worked hard, were enthusiastic about the project, and maintained their professionalism throughout,” said Jennifer Ronnenberg, water management coordinator at the Fillmore SWCD. “Everything looks great, and we have already received many comments of praise from the community. I couldn’t have asked for a better crew.”
The Conservation Corps crew felt the love, too.
“It was really gratifying to transform an ugly, broken system into something beautiful that helps the environment, helps the river and helps the town,” said crew leader Billy Ritzenthaler. “And it’s really cool to give kids an opportunity to do something they can be proud of.”
Zach, our Southern District Field Coordinator, is well on his way to becoming a certified burn boss. He is nearing the end of a several year process of classes, intensive week-long workshops and type 2 taskbook requirements. With this certification, the Corps will be able to take on more prescribed burn requests, while expanding and enhancing the Corpsmember experience.
Zach started with Conservation Corps as a crew leader and then field specialist in the southern district. Still based in the southern district, he is now the field coordinator responsible for project coordination and management, planning and executing prescribed burns, direct field work leadership and logistics, equipment repair and maintenance, and corpsmember hiring, training and management.
Inspired by Southern Assistant District Manager, Dustin Looman, Zach got going on the burn boss track early in his Corps career. Prescribed burning is his favorite part of the job. However, being deployed to New York City six days after Hurricane Sandy stands out as one of his most memorable Corps experiences so far. He spent 30 days helping with shelter operations in New York and set up a muck and gut operation in Atlantic City.
The Corps has also impacted Zach on a more personal level. In 2013, he met his future wife, Jennie LaRoche while they both worked in the Corps’ southern district. They were married this October and recently took a trip to Lutsen for their honeymoon. Congratulations Zach and Jennie!
Zach feels that Conservation Corps is a truly rewarding organization to work for. He enjoys working with the staff and Corpsmembers every day. The Corps values Zach’s hard work and can’t wait to celebrate the completion of his burn boss certification!
Saturday, November 12 marked the 4th full Saturday College and Career Day for our Youth Outdoors program. 44 youth came together to tour the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus, work on their resumes, network with professionals and participate in hands-on breakout sessions.
The College and Career Day is meant to expose youth participants to possible college and career options with an emphasis on environmental and community options. Youth were able to get up close and personal in a monarch lab and marine touch tank, view a drone demo and tree ascension demo and learn about the career pathway to the Department of Natural Resources.
Lunch was spent eating “pizza with professionals” from local organizations such as; Warner Nature Center, Mississippi Park Connection, Barr Engineering and Voyageur Outward Bound School. Many of the professionals who participated were community partners and Corps alumni which gave the youth a clear picture of where the Corps can take you.
Former Conservation Corps College and Career Coordinator and current Admissions Officer with Macalester College, Arielle Johnson, attended the lunch. “The pizza with professionals portion of the event was such a delight! Youth were curious, engaged, and brought excellent questions. I appreciated having the opportunity to learn about their interests and share a bit about my career path and higher education as well,” Arielle said.
Crew members, leaders, field specialists and coordinators have joined together from multiple Corps districts and programs to assist with flood recovery efforts in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A total of 43 Corps representatives will join the 900 National Service members from AmeriCorps who have already responded and deployed to the August flooding.
Mark Wilson, our main point of contact for disaster response deployment describes the impact of their service.
Disaster response deployments are not easy projects, physically or mentally. Our members have volunteered to be away from friends and family for at least 30 days, including over a major holiday. Not only have our members selflessly volunteered to assist hundreds or thousands of flood survivors by mucking and gutting flooded residences, but have also signed up for a truly life-changing and unique experience themselves. I am continually awed by their commitment to serving our nation and their impact on the lives of complete strangers who’s homes and families have been devastated by these disasters. It is them and their service that shows the nation what makes America great.
So far 367 damage assessments have been completed, 331 homes mucked and gutted, 14,592 cubic yards of debris cleared, 9,528 people assisted in shelters and 1,191,187 pounds of supplies collected or distributed. However, there is still work to be done and we are proud to be a part of the efforts.
Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa Individual Placement members with the Minnesota DNR ventured out of the metro area on a trip to the North Shore for four days in late October. They drove a total of 700 miles up to the border of Minnesota and Canada and then back down to St. Paul. They stopped at twelve different locations that were a mix of State Parks and Scientific and Natural Areas.
"It’s important to learn about and explore new places in the state. It helps connect us to our work, achieve more and grow professionally. The valuable skills and knowledge gained by attending the short work trip is of great interest to all the CCMI DNR crew members. It is also a CCMI DNR crew tradition to take a spring and fall work trip and experience Minnesota’s natural resources."
The Corps was a great two years for Rachel Sicheneder who spent 2012 in Windom as a crew member and 2013 in Marshall as a crew leader. Through multiple different projects including prescribed burns, buckthorn removal, garlic mustard mitigation, and seed collecting Rachel truly enjoyed the opportunity to get outside and meet members of the conservation community.
After her time as a crew leader Rachel headed to the Eastern United States to complete a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. The 142 days of hiking gave her time to think over what she had learned in the Corps and where she wanted to take her life in the future. Ultimately, she decided to commit herself to a different kind of public service; and applied to an Officer Accession program ofthe Coast Guard. In her interview panel the three Officers told her that her time in the Corps was one of the aspects that made her stand out among the other applicants and should not be overestimated. In May of 2015 she graduated Officer Candidate School as an Ensign.
Currently, Rachel is a Junior Lieutenant stationed on the Coast Guard tall ship the EAGLE where she teaches cadets from the Coast Guard Academy, and acts as a diplomatic representative of the military in domestic and foreign ports. She credits her time spent in the Corps as one of the best personal and professional decisions she could have made and is excited to see where her military career will take her next.
There's a new crew in town! This year, Three Rivers Park District gained a new dedicated Conservation Corps Wildlife crew. The park district recently acquired 500 new acres of land in need of restoration. To help manage the added work of prescribed fires, prairie restoration and wildlife management, Three Rivers applied for a Conservation Partner Legacy grant in order to hire a Conservation Corps crew.
Emma, the wildlife crew leader, grew up right next to one of the parks they often work at, Baker Park Reserve. Now, when she comes back to visit she sees all the areas she worked on and thinks, "I did that!" The wildlife crew is lucky to work on a highly diverse set of projects throughout the year including; seed collecting, prescribed burns, tree-felling, planting prairie violets and monitoring bull snakes, turtles, prairie skinks and regal fritillary butterflies.
One of the crew's favorite projects has been working with bull snakes. Starting with just 15 snakes, Three Rivers reintroduced bull snakes into Crow Hassan park. The population has now grown to over 160 healthy snakes. The wildlife crew assisted in catching, measuring, weighing and tagging the snakes. One day they found 24 snakelets at once!
"They have been extremely helpful," said Wildlife Specialist, Mitch Haag. "Now we have more time and resources to protect this habitat."
Split Rock Lighthouse is a North Shore icon. Built in 1910 in response to frequent shipwrecks during 1905, this historic landmark and the surrounding state park now bring in tourists from all over the country. But with all these tourists come increasing safety and erosion concerns due to the large number of visitors. This month, two of our NE crews worked in conjunction with state park staff to ensure visitors have an enjoyable and safe stay at this popular destination.
Members of the Gooseberry and Tofte crews worked at Split Rock State Park to install 30 fire rings, tent pads and new benches. Crew members also served at Gooseberry State Park where they built a 10’ x 6’ rock wall at an overlook by the visitor center to prevent erosion. They also added a six-foot step to one of the trails and added gravel to 100 feet of washed out trail.
The impact of our work was immediate. Numerous park-goers expressed their gratitude while crews worked on the trails, giving them an opportunity to talk about their work with the Corps. Assistant Park Manager, Christa Maxwell was also grateful for the crews. “I was impressed with the level of professionalism and enthusiasm these crews applied to the projects. It is a pleasure working with CCM crews,” she said.
Shelby Kilibarda is the Education and Outreach Corpsmember with Monarch Joint Venture. As a second year member of the Corps, Shelby has experienced both our Field Crew program and Individual Placement program. Each program offered her something unique and important. She loved the field work because she got to do hands-on work outdoors. The IP position, though more office-based, has offered her increased responsibilities and independence.
Recently, she was highlighted in the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project Update. Click the link to learn more about Shelby’s hard work monitoring monarchs.
To anyone interested in Conservation Corps, Shelby says, “Take advantage of the programs!” She believes the Corps is a great opportunity to network with people in the natural resources field. After her term, Shelby is thinking about grad school or possibly continuing her work with Monarch Joint Venture. We shall see!
We have two IP positions open now. Check out the job descriptions and apply today!
Historic Resources Specialist: Deadline October 30
The Historic Resources Specialist will assist the DNR Division of Parks and Trails (PAT) staff in organizing, arranging, preserving, and cataloging the extensive collection of historic documents and materials at Croft Mine Historical Park and Hill Annex Mine State Park.
Aquatic Invasive Species Specialist: Deadline October 30
The Aquatic Invasive Species Specialist will assist the DNR Division of Ecological and Water Resources staff in helping prevent the spread and promote the management of invasive species.
Contributing to the enrichment of local neighborhoods is a leading component of our Youth Outdoors (YO) program. Through crew work, service projects and work with community partners, YO members participate in local initiatives to improve the environmental health and overall well-being of communities in which they live. One example of this is the partnership between YO and Frogtown Farm.
While many of the projects they do together involve maintaining gardens, last month YO had the unique opportunity to help with Frogtown Farm’s Harvest Fest. The crew helped monitor parking and assisted in setting up and tearing down event spaces. They even had a chance to check out the activities and food that were part of the festival between supporting the event.
“We are so grateful for YO help!” said Community Organizer, Stephanie Hankerson.
Check out photos from the event here.
Frogtown Farm and Park is a hub for a healthy food system that fills gaps in food production, storage, manufacturing, and distribution. With spokes that reach beyond its acreage and the Frogtown neighborhood, Frogtown Farm and Park is recognized as a destination for those seeking learning, innovation, reflection, celebration, and authentic community. Rooted in values of social equity, justice, and inter-connectedness, this urban farm on the hill serves as a model for multi-cultural community and a catalyst for economic development, wealth creation, community pride, and sustainability.
This month, districts all over the region have been busy working on construction projects. Learn more about their individual projects and hear testimony from crew leaders, project hosts, staff and the public.
Chase Point hiking trail rehabilitation
Hosted by Conservation Corps alum, Shawn Conrad with Scenic State Park, Northeast and Summer Youth Corps crews constructed a series of decks and stairways that will allow people to enjoy Chase Point without damaging it further. Crews worked about a month on a 100' section of trail.
George Wright Park in Fergus Falls, Ottertail River canoe & kayak access area
The Ottertail crew built 38 steps, 2 “landing areas” which covered about 62 feet from top to bottom in 3 days!
Learn more in this news article published by Fergus Falls' local newspaper.
Butler County Boardwalk: Building a boardwalk to connect youth with nature
Derick Schneibel, Iowa Assistant Program Manager, writes about the project:
The Conservation Corps installed a 350 foot long 6 foot wide wooden wetland boardwalk in the Paul Schoeman Nature Area. The boardwalk ends with a 8ft by 12ft viewing platform over an open water portion of the wetland. Conservation Corps staff worked along with Staff and Board members from the Butler CCB to design the boardwalk and procure materials. Some of the input for the boardwalk, as well as other future improvements for the site, came from students from the local school district.
The purpose of the boardwalk and nature area development is to allow a place for school groups to visit and learn more about the natural world close to their community. The county has plans to add interpretive signage to the boardwalk and platform, to aid in the educational function of the structure. The crews worked hard in the open wetland through rain, sun, and mosquitoes. They enjoyed this project as it allowed them to learn and practice some construction and problem solving skills. In addition the Corps members were stoked to be part of a project with a goal of connecting young people with nature.
Fixing steps at Frontenac State Park
Crew Leader, Will Farhat, writes about the project:
We were replacing some old steps that were on the Bluffside Trail at Frontenac State Park. The new steps that we had to bring down were made during rainy day projects. So we had to transport these steps from the shop all the way to the bluff and then down to the site. The hardest part was carrying the steps from our truck all the way down the bluff to the installation site. After digging out the old steps we began installing the new ones. We had to make sure each step was level or else it would affect the steps placed above it as well. We found the best way from our project host was just hitting it really hard with a hammer. This seemed to work well. One of the biggest challenges we faced was having very large rocks in the way of where we wanted to place the step. This was solved by also just hitting it really hard with a sledgehammer or mining pick to crack it up. This worked most of the time and the other times we would have to get creative through modifying the steps. In all, we wouldn't have been able to get through it without the awesome guidance of our project host, Wally, and the hard work and determination of my crew.
Excellent, very bright, amazing work ethic. These were some of the words Graduate Landscape Architect with Metro Blooms, Andy Novak, had to say about Conservation Corps crews. Metro Blooms has partnered with the Corps for seven years. Through Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources clean water funds, we have been able to collaborate on rain garden projects throughout the metro.
Metro Blooms has a variety of rain garden programs that promote storm water management and pollution prevention, while also beautifying our neighborhoods. Since 2009, Metro Blooms has installed more than 450 rain gardens with help from local volunteers and partnering organizations like Conservation Corps.
This week our Metro crew is working at Folwell Performing Arts Magnet School maintaining a 10 year old rain garden. Although the crew enjoys building a rain garden from scratch over maintenance, you would never know it. They had positive, determined attitudes as they decided they best method of weeding, planting and watering. "It's not easy work," says Novak, "because of the size and time constraint of these projects. However, the crews always get a ton of work done!"
Conservation Corps is proud to support Metro Blooms’ mission to promote and celebrate gardening, to beautify our communities and help heal and protect our environment.
To learn more about Metro Blooms and to get involved, visit their website.
During my time here at CCM, I’ve learned how to really live again. Here, we’re shown that being an adult doesn’t have to be boring or intimidating. The adults here spend so much time and money on us to make sure we have an enjoyable learning experience in a safe place. I feel connected to the world in a way I can’t get in my suburb where wealth, race, and what gender you are matters.
In a world of disconnection, pushed by the surges of the hottest technology, it can be hard to grow and mature, but at CCM I’ve grown more in the past 4 weeks than in the past year. I’ve become friends with people who I would’ve never expected to become friends with in my world.
This experience has pushed me to become more open-minded, and I’ll be sad when my time here comes to an end. I’ll be leaving here with a new sense of confidence that I can influence people to be more open-mined, to learn new things, and that I am able to teach what I’ve learned. I will go forth with this experience having changed me, and I wish for my peers, friends and coworkers the same.
Anna Kasper, CCM 2016
Anna was one of 154 youth who took part in our Summer Youth Corps this past summer. Youth participants spend four weeks camping, taking part in hands-on conservation projects, and unplugging from technology. In addition to spending time improving trails, removing invasive plants, planting trees, installing rain gardens and restoring native habitats, many youth tell us that their time with SYC was life-changing. Just like Anna, they leave their time with us feeling more confident in who they are and more connected to the people around them.
Plans are already underway for our 2017 program and we can’t wait to welcome another group of youth participants for a life-changing experience with Summer Youth Corps! Stay tuned for more information on how to sign up.
Ever wonder what it's like to work as an Individual Placement with the Corps? Andrew Grinstead, former Fergus Falls crew leader and current Planning Specialist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Saint Paul, can show you. Each placement highlights unique skills while focusing on the mission to work with citizens to conserve and manage the state's natural resources, provide outdoor recreation opportunities, and to provide for commercial uses of natural resources in a way that creates a sustainable quality of life.
Here is an inside look at some of the projects Andrew has accomplished.
Andrew coordinated, drafted, mapped, and managed the internal/public outreach for this project from start to finish (aside from some background research from a year or so ago).
Alongside Darin Newman (Former CCM Planning Specialist), Andrew helped draft language, create maps, and organize public outreach.
"It is great to see all of the hard work realized in these two documents." -Andrew
You can have the opportunity to participate in projects like Andrew! Individual Placement positions are now open. Apply today!
In partnership with the Superior National Forest, the Conservation Corps is being recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the Abraham Lincoln Honor Award in the category of Diversity, Inclusion and Outreach for our work with the Faces of Tomorrow program. The initiative, which we started in 2015, prepares diverse young adults for natural resource careers where women and people of color are underrepresented. In 2015, 12 corpsmembers participated in the program. An additional 12 participated this year and planning is underway for 2017 and beyond. Here are some unique elements of the program:
- We broadened our recruitment efforts and made it easier for all to participate by providing members with housing, food and transportation.
- Members were trained by Forest Service staff in wildland firefighting, botany, improving recreational access, and fisheries, and managing wildlife and timber.
- Members earned certificates in boat and ATV operation, Red Cross CPR and first-aid, and wildfire suppression.
- A Forest Service recruitment specialist showed members how to apply and interview for federal jobs. Many have been successful in gaining federal employment after their term.
The Abraham Lincoln Honor Awards are the most prestigious departmental awards presented by the Secretary of Agriculture. Employees at all grade levels and private citizens are eligible for recognition. This year’s theme is “Strong Service and Superior Results.” As established in 2014, one Honor Award nomination (either individual or group) will be selected as the contribution that most closely embodies this year’s theme and will receive special recognition at the ceremony. Eric Antonson, Senior Director of Programs for the Conservation Corps attended the ceremony in Washington, DC on Tuesday, September 13 to receive the award along with our partners from the Superior National Forest.
As proud new parents of the Adopt-a-River program, we are inspired and humbled to see the continued dedication of water stewards throughout Minnesota. In just two months since the program transitioned to us from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 19 cleanups have been registered or reported, including groups from MN Wild/Excel Energy Center and Cannon River Watershed. It is exciting to see dedicated groups continuing their great work as well as meeting new groups ready to tackle their first clean-up. You can join the effort! Visit our website to learn more.
Did you make it to the Great Minnesota Get-Together this year? We sure did, and we loved every minute of it! We were camped out at the DNR building teaching people about invasive species, demonstrating how to safely use stand-up paddle boards, and leading kids on an ATV simulator. We even got to help Governor Dayton and Lt. Governor Smith with the Governor’s Fire Prevention Day on Friday, August 26. We had a great time teaching fair-goers how to safely enjoy our beautiful outdoors spaces while protecting our precious natural resources.