A week of problem solving

by Kira Pollack, Youth Outdoors AmeriCorps member - 6-27-2019

When people ask me what I do in my service term, I usually summarize thusly: “youth engagement and chainsaws, but not at the same time.” The Youth Outdoors umbrella covers a wide swath of ecological restoration and youth development experiences and, until recently, included the School and Community Forest crew. Before their grant expired, I tagged along on SCF’s final project near Grygla, MN.

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The project seemed straightforward: make a dent in the construction of a picnic pavilion. The site host’s goal is to bring more youth out to the Goodridge School Forest and his plan includes creating a school bus-accessible road.

My crewmates and I hopped into the truck Monday morning full of nervous energy. Christian, Kristin, and I were excited to spend the week spiking together, but unsure how we would get the job done. A couple months into my term, I feel confident with a chainsaw, and I built two Little Free Libraries with my youth last term, but a pavilion is different ball game. This project proved an opportunity to think critically and apply what we’ve learned so far.

Our crew measured out the perimeter of the structure, dug out post holes, removed boulders, and prepared the posts. Over halfway through the work week we thought we were ready to set the corner posts with cement. Once those were done we could set the gable posts. Easy Peasy!

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But despite our double checking, only two corners were right. My uncle is a carpenter. “Measure twice, cut once” is drilled into me; but I would argue the saying should be “measure thrice, square twice, pour concrete once.” So we spent the rest of the day digging out the sides of the holes so the distances were exactly right and triple checking that the posts were coplanar and plumb before we set them.

I was discouraged by how little it felt like we had done. But my crew leader thanked us “for a week of problem solving.” She reminded us that starting from scratch is the hardest part, but the progress we made will set up the next crew for further success. In the Corps we practice Safety, Quality, Quantity, in that order. The work we completed is work I am proud of. This week another crew is heading out to take another crack at it.

I know they’ll do great work, but I’ll be happy to sleep in my own bed.

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Imposter syndrome

by David Minor, web and social media specialist/ AmeriCorps member with MN DNR Scientific and Natural Areas through Conservation Corps’ Individual Placement program – 6/24/2019

Me, taking photos and videos of a prescribed burn for a before/after project showing the benefits of prescribed burning.

Me, taking photos and videos of a prescribed burn for a before/after project showing the benefits of prescribed burning.

It is that feeling as if you don’t belong, don’t have the right qualifications, and don’t deserve the job. You feel like the people around are going to find out that you are, I hate to say it, a fraud.

I know that feeling. I’ve had it in classes at school, in other jobs, and more recently too. I have found myself in the Conservation Corps, placed at the Department of Natural Resources, serving as the Web and Social Media Specialist for the Scientific and Natural Areas Program, with very little conservation experience. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up camping with my family and doing projects as a Boyscout, so I have a great personal appreciation for nature. However, I studied journalism and art in school, which is not exactly ecology. Sure, I can take photos and write about stuff, but I felt like I knew very little about what I was trying to talk about! Did I even belong here?

I’m sure other people have this feeling sometimes too, even when they have the “right education and qualifications.” One survey in the 1980’s, by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Gail Matthews, estimated that 70% of people feel this way at some point.

When I first started as the Web and Social Media Specialist at the Scientific and Natural Areas Program in January, it was a lot. Everybody seemed to know everything about anything. This year is the Program’s 50th anniversary and I’m supposed to be able to talk about it! Walking through one of the Scientific and Natural Areas in winter, it seemed like everyone else could look around and identify every single plant poking out of the snow, and knew all of the jargon, lingo, and acronyms (so many acronyms).

I kept needing to remind myself that my site supervisor isn’t going to find out that I’m a “fraud” that doesn’t know plant identification or whatever. I’m pretty sure he may have guessed that from the interview and resume. Besides, he has even told me a few times that sometimes this position is filled by someone who is more science based, and sometimes by someone who is more communications based. I was chosen because I have more of a communications background and can bring things like video, which has not been used very much in the past.

Five months into my service term, I feel much less like an “imposter.” I have learned a lot, but I still have a lot more to learn. That is why I am in this position. I’m here to learn, and do what I know how to do. Which involves me asking a lot of other people, “Is this right? Did I get that accurate?”

Different people have different skillsets and knowledge. They are all important in the protection of, and education about some of Minnesota’s finest natural features.

My desk while I’m working on a video about the Scientific and Natural Areas.

My desk while I’m working on a video about the Scientific and Natural Areas.

Painting the invasives blue

by Jaleesa Houle, crew leader/ AmeriCorps member, central district – 6/19/2019

One of my crew members, Levi Tollefson, spraying crown vetch on the edge of our unit at Afton State Park.

One of my crew members, Levi Tollefson, spraying crown vetch on the edge of our unit at Afton State Park.

Despite the seemingly endless winter, spring has sprung, and summertime has started to creep in, which means that plants are sprouting up left and right throughout Minnesota. For Conservation Corps MN & IA (CCMI) Field Crews, the change in seasons often means a change in daily tasks. 

A dense patch of crown vetch at Afton State Park.

A dense patch of crown vetch at Afton State Park.

One essential task of CCMI crews is assisting in the control of invasive species. We don’t like invasive species. They cause a host of problems and encroach on native ecosystems, quickly taking over if not controlled. The Department of Natural Resources has identified various invasives that are a threat to Minnesota’s native habitats and has established management techniques to combat these pesky plants. As foot soldiers for the DNR, our job is often to assist in the removal of these species. 

This week, my crew has been tasked with controlling cow vetch and crown vetch in Afton State Park and Wild River State Park. These two species of plants are similar in that they smother native species and can take over prairie restoration sites in addition to other disturbed areas. Like many invasive species, these plants have several native lookalikes, which means we must be confident that we are properly identifying them. On our first day of working with these plants, we met with our project host from the DNR to go over what the plants look like and identify similar species to avoid.

Flowering cow vetch at Wild River State Park.

Flowering cow vetch at Wild River State Park.

In order to combat both cow and crown vetch, we need to catch them before they go to seed. Once the plants spread their seed, there’s not much we can do to control them. Research has found that an effective management method for attacking these vetch species is to spray herbicide on the plant as it’s beginning to flower. For us, this means putting on backpack sprayers and walking through fields looking for these plants and spraying them with herbicide.

What goes into our backpack sprayers? Mostly water. For every gallon of water, we mix a mere half ounce of the herbicide we’ve been given to use and add some blue dye so we can see where we’ve sprayed. The low dosage of herbicide in combination with hand-spraying allows us to minimize the impact of nearby plant species that we want to survive and thrive. 

Our backpacks can hold up to 5 gallons, but we typically fill them 2-3 gallons at a time. Even with the backpacks half filled, they weigh 25-35lbs. Depending on how dense the area we’re spraying is, that amount should last most of the day. In order to make sure we get as much vetch as possible while using our herbicide sparingly, we line up an arms-width distance apart and grid the area. When we finish day, we end up with a field of blue vetch and the promise of a healthier prairie land. It can be tiring carrying 30lbs+ on our backs all day, but it feels good to leave an area knowing that we are protecting and improving our native ecosystems.

Cow vetch after being sprayed at Wild River State Park.

Cow vetch after being sprayed at Wild River State Park.

Spotlight on Wild River State Park

By Kaia Bierman, urban outreach specialist/ AmeriCorps member with MN DNR Parks and Trails through Conservation Corps’ Individual Placement program – 6/18/2019

Wild River view from nature center

Wild River view from nature center

With a growing disconnect between people and the natural world, many of the benefits and necessities that the environment holds go unnoticed, such as those related to health, fitness, and mental well-being. In order to remedy the distancing between people and the natural world that surrounds us, my position as the Urban Outreach Specialist has emerged out of an initiative to bridge the gap between individuals and the environment by spreading awareness for all of what the Minnesota State Parks and Trails system has to offer.

In this individual placement/ AmeriCorps position with the DNR, much of this outreach takes place at two of the DNR’s partnership locations, the Bloomington REI and the Trailhead in Theodore Wirth Regional Park. At these kiosk spaces we engage with people at their level of interest with the outdoors. We take the time to ask the individual about their experience level, recreational interests and curiosity, willingness to travel, and more, in order to help find the best fit for them.

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There are 75 Minnesota State Parks and Recreation Areas to explore, creating an endless amount of opportunities for adventure! After performing outreach for the past few months, I have learned that knowing how to navigate the resources on the DNR’s website is crucial for taking away the “unknown” for people, but sharing personal accounts on experiences of place is irreplaceable for meaningful interactions that truly inspire individuals to go seek that adventure for themselves. Recognizing this important reality, the Urban Outreach team took a trip to Wild River State Park, which is just an hour’s drive from the Twin Cities. Hosted by Wild River’s Interpretive Naturalist, Mike Dunker, we had an in-depth tour of the park.

Bordered by the St. Croix, Wild River State Park is named for this river’s legacy as one of the first eight rivers protected by the U.S. Congress through the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. It has a strong current that makes swimming unadvisable, but canoers and kayakers have the opportunity to camp out on first-come first-serve sites that can only be accessed by water.  

Wild River State Park sits on a biome transition zone of pine forest, hardwood forest, and oak savanna, whose 35 miles of hiking trails and 18 miles of horseback riding trails will take you through wide open prairies speckled with wildflowers and forested areas that provide shade and company of a host of diverse wildlife and plants. We had the opportunity to see numerous deer, hawks, and even a muskrat scuttling by! Fox, coyotes, minks, and otters are among some of the other animals that call Wild River home.

In order to protect plant and wildlife species in Minnesota State Parks, it is not legal to pick wildflowers or plants, even if edible. However, the harvesting of edible fruits and mushrooms for personal use is welcomed! We came across “Chicken of the Woods”, a common edible mushroom named for its resemblance to the taste of chicken! Cooking it with some butter, garlic, and onions makes a delicious meal, or even a nice meat substitute.

Minnesota State Parks have something to offer everyone. Whether it be recreation, history, botany appreciation, wildlife sightings, or just a day in the woods to escape the hustle of life. By bringing attention to the abundance of high quality recreational and outdoor opportunities that Minnesota has to offer, we foster a relationship between people and the natural world. Developing a relationship and a sense of belonging to the land is crucial to stewardship and ensuring that these areas will be protected and enjoyed by others for years to come.

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