Serving in the Corps summer youth program in 1988 when it was MCC, Jill Johnson worked out of St. Croix State Park. Much like today’s summer crew members, she worked on a variety of park improvement projects such as constructing and maintaining trails, installing erosion control materials and landscaping. Because she signed up for every spike opportunity, each week was a new experience and she visited places across northern Minnesota. One of her favorite projects was hiking deep into the St. Croix State Forest to remove unwanted trees and shrubs around seedlings the DNR had planted years earlier, increasing their chance of survival.
Other projects included painting picnic tables and an entire ranger station, building a boardwalk at Itasca State Park, hauling and spreading pea gravel on trails at Interstate State Park to reduce erosion, clearing trees and shrubs to create new trails at Voyageur's National Park and Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, and cutting and dragging brush. She loved it all and especially enjoyed projects that made trails wheelchair-accessible, giving everyone the opportunity to get into the woods and experience the beautiful sights and sounds of nature.
What she loved most was at the end of the day, when she could look back on what had been accomplished and see that it was good. Her dad taught her to always leave a place in better condition than she found it. To this day, Johnson can go back to many of those project sites and see evidence of their good work, even after 25 years.
The good work was not without daily challenges. Jill remembers her first week in the Corps was tough. It was cold and rainy, and she was physically exhausted from digging heavy clay soil in a city park to install landscape timbers and plant trees. Soaked to the bone and with blistered hands and feet, she was not sure she would make it the whole summer. But by the second week she was already feeling better, and each week got easier as her strength increased and the weather improved.
Johnson’s most memorable experiences were the fun she had after hours and on weekends: getting to see where the Mississippi starts, going up to the North Shore to Split Rock Lighthouse and Gooseberry Falls, and spending a week at Voyageurs National Park, sleeping in a tent on an island where all she could see in any direction was water. She loved that the park ranger would taxi them in a boat from the island to headquarters to complete their trail work. Other great memories include:
- How good a peach tasted after several weeks of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
- Decorating and riding on a float in a parade in Hinckley.
- Catching and eating fish, waiting out thunderstorms under huge rocks, racing canoes, playing softball, and making up hilarious songs to pass the time around the campfire.
- The kindness of so many people, grateful for what she was doing and generous with treats...like peaches.
- Learning to estimate how far away a storm was by counting the seconds between lightning and thunder.
- Paddling canoes out onto a lake at dusk, lying on the bottom of the canoe, staring up at the stars and listening to the loons call.
Serving in the Corps was also personally meaningful for Johnson in a number of ways. Though she was somewhat shy, working with so many different types of people made it easy to make friends. She found herself cracking jokes and being able to influence decisions. And her voice, one of many, was heard. Since that time, she has never been afraid to speak up for what she thinks is right. She also learned a lot about working in teams. As part of a different crew each week, she learned to identify and adapt to a different role on the team depending on the collective need.
Johnson describes the summer she served in the Corps as the greatest adventure of her life. Though it was hard work, “I never felt so happy, physically fit and at peace with myself and the many friends I made,” she says. She learned to trust those around her and have confidence in herself.
Going into the Corps, Johnson was already fairly certain that she wanted to study natural resources in college but was short on experience working or even recreating in the outdoors. After one short summer with the Corps, she was certain about her career path and was able to fill her resume with natural resource management skills of many kinds, helping her land her first internship and launch her career.
Since then, Johnson has enjoyed a 20-year career in the urban forestry profession, working for a national nonprofit in Washington D.C., the University of Vermont Extension Service and most recently the U. S. Forest Service. As the USFS Midwest Urban Forestry Coordinator for the last 10 years, she coordinates federal urban forestry activities in seven states including Minnesota and Iowa. As part of her work, she develops and delivers educational resources and tools to improve urban forestry programs nationwide. She also serves on the Conservation Corps Board of Directors.