One corner of the Corps

by Gina Hatch, visitor services intern/ AmeriCorps member with Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge through Conservation Corps’ Individual Placement program – 6/10/2019

As part of my work at the refuge, I often get to give short “ranger talks” to drop-in visitors or visiting school groups. Photo by Joel Vos/USFWS.

As part of my work at the refuge, I often get to give short “ranger talks” to drop-in visitors or visiting school groups. Photo by Joel Vos/USFWS.

Well into my second year with the Conservation Corps, I still have yet to don the iconic yellow hard hat or lift a chainsaw, and I probably never will during my term. While many intrepid Corpsmembers get up each morning and suit up in steel-toed boots and neon orange chaps to fight the good fight against buckthorn, or to stay the hand of stream bank erosion, I’m here to speak from a different corner of the Corps’ many programs--a corner that doesn’t involve nearly as much stylish safety equipment, but one that I would argue is every bit as exhilarating.

As an Individual Placement in the Corps, I face frontiers in conservation that are a little more abstract. I serve as a Visitor Services intern at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Minnesota Valley is one of over 560 refuges in a network that spans the country from Hawaii to Puerto Rico. These refuges are all public land managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with a mission of “working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”

The refuge is just perfectly situated where you would last expect it: a hair away from the MSP airport (easily one of the biggest flight hubs in the country) and a stone’s throw from the Mall of America (America’s largest shopping mall, in case anyone missed the memo). The light rail drops me off at the refuge visitor center each morning and from the window next to my desk all day I can watch airplanes taking off at regular intervals. When I venture from my desk down to the visitor area, the most common refrain I hear is, “I had no idea this place was here!” sometimes followed by, “I’ve lived her all my life!” My other favorite exclamation: “I’m waiting for my next flight and just wandered over here; what is this place?!”

These kinds of remarks speak to what I love most about working at Minnesota Valley. And they capture the special importance we hold as an urban wildlife refuge. Beyond biology and land conservation, a lot goes into making this and other refuges valuable, welcoming places for their surrounding communities. Recognizing that the U.S. population is rocketing toward a more urban and more ethnically and racially diverse make-up, the Fish and Wildlife Service recently rolled out a blueprint for connecting to urban audiences nationwide, and named Minnesota Valley one of 14 urban priority refuges from which to make these connections. This is roughly where my Corps service comes in.

As a Visitor Services intern, my work can encompass anything that touches the public. I rove our trails and make sure trail kiosks are intact and stocked with brochures. I participate in planning events and large festivals hosted at the refuge or around the metro area. Back at the visitor center, I lead informal interpretive talks for the public, help create interactive displays, and design signs and flyers to publicize our events. Most importantly, I get to do all these things while asking myself how I’m contributing to making the refuge a more welcoming place for more people.

When I first applied to serve with the Conservation Corps, urban environmental outreach was at the top of my mind. Minnesota Valley has been an ideal place for me to learn what environmental outreach means in the 21st Century and to start to understand what pernicious barriers need to be broken down to accomplish it. Are these barriers about as tenacious as buckthorn? I would wager a yes. Are these barriers as important to eradicate for the future of conservation? Most certainly. Do the adversaries of these barriers need hard hats and chainsaws? Well, we already discussed that one.

In blog posts to come I look forward to sharing details about what the challenges (and rewards) of my service do entail.

The refuge hosts several large festivals throughout the year that can bring hundreds of people through the door. Photo by Gina Hatch/UWFS.

The refuge hosts several large festivals throughout the year that can bring hundreds of people through the door. Photo by Gina Hatch/UWFS.

To tree or not to tree

by Caroline Fazzio, central district crew leader/ AmeriCorps member - 6/5/2019

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How many trees does it take to reforest a landscape? The short answer to such a tricky question is simple—a lot. Even so, the Three Rivers Parks District does not shy away from the challenge. This spring, along with the help of multiple crews from Conservation Corps MN & IA, Three Rivers planted over 6,000 trees and shrubs (and an additional 30,000 seedlings). This project is part of a massive planting regime that Three Rivers has been undertaking for almost 40 years. Acres of open land across Three Rivers parks and park reserves have been planted with thousands of native trees and shrubs to restore these landscapes. Nearly every day throughout the month of May, Three Rivers staff, Conservation Corps crews, and Hennepin County Sentencing to Serve crews come together in a spectacular partnership to achieve such high planting numbers. It’s a lot of hard work, dedication, and time spent in the dirt, but the results can be witnessed across Three Rivers landscapes all around the Metro.

This year, the entire Central District from Conservation Corps MN & IA partnered with Three Rivers to assist with their planting project. One Friday in May, every crew from Central District joined together with Three Rivers staff to plant 1,000 trees and shrubs. Crews met at Elm Creek Park Reserve, and assisted in running, planting, and watering. To plant just one tree requires auguring a two foot wide hole, trimming the roots, setting the tree at an appropriate height, filling in the dirt back around it, scraping extra dirt into a pyramid around the base, filling the hole with water, and then repositioning the tree and re-scraping the dirt if either moved while watering.

Sound complicated? Now try adding 999 more trees into the mix.

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Needless to say, the day was a bit chaotic. However, despite the large number of workers and the rush of trees being planted, the Conservation Corps crews pushed through to accomplish the largest day of planting for the entire 2019 planting season. The project was a testament to the amazing environmental work that can be accomplished when organizations and individuals come together in pursuit of a common goal. So next time you’re wandering the trails at Elm Creek, or any other Three Rivers park, look for landscapes filled with young trees and shrubs. They may look small, muddy, and messy; but just imagine what unique forest they may one day grow to be.

*Check out the video for an inside look into the planting process.

My Corps story

by Katie Traub, community and energy outreach/ AmeriCorps member with the Center for Energy and Environment through Conservation Corps’ Individual Placement program – 6/5/2019

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I first started my journey with the Conservation Corps in May of last year as a conservation apprentice with the Dakota County SWCD in Farmington, MN. I had just graduated from college, not quite sure what I was going to do with my environmental science degree and eager to get some experience in the field of natural resources. I thought a 3-month AmeriCorps term would be a great way to discover my interests while serving and learning in the community I grew up in.

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What I gained from my 3 months with the Dakota SWCD was more than I could have ever asked for. I was exposed to a wide variety of conservation practices and got to spend the whole summer with a group of experts who were incredibly supportive and helpful when I was completely clueless. It was clear that the goal was to learn. I wasn’t just an extra pair of hands – and that’s what stood out to me. I discovered so much about myself in the short time I was there and knew that I had even more to figure out, so of course I jumped at the opportunity for a full-time service term with the Corps.

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This past January I started as the Community and Energy Outreach Corpsmember with the Center for Energy and Environment; a non-profit based in the Twin Cities. I’m currently about 4 months into my 11-month term and I am absolutely loving it. I do outreach events to promote the organization’s home energy audit program and work on youth energy education in schools. I get to spend my time out in the community engaging with people of all ages and backgrounds, tabling at events all around the metro, and hanging out with TOLBY – our energy efficient firefly mascot!

Many of the projects I am working on now involve a completely different set of skills than previous work I’ve done in the environmental field. This position is much more focused on communications rather than hands-on field work. I can now confidently speak with complete strangers about saving energy in their homes, I can coordinate 6 presentations in a single school day, and my public speaking skills have greatly improved (after stumbling through the first few presentations, admittedly).

My experiences with Conservation Corps MN & IA have been nothing but positive and have helped prepare me for a successful career in natural resources. I’m excited to see what the rest of the year has in store!

Buckthorn bound

by Caroline Fazzio, central district crew leader/ AmeriCorps member - 4/9/2019

Buckthorn piled along a park trail in Crystal, MN.

Buckthorn piled along a park trail in Crystal, MN.

Have you ever been enjoying a hike or walk along a park trail in early spring and noticed piles of dark-barked shrubs lying around the trail? Or perhaps you’ve witnessed groups of individuals in brightly colored helmets removing what seems like an excessive amount of vegetation and piling it up. These brush piles can be a common sight in many managed natural areas around the Twin Cities, and if they’re on public land, chances are a Conservation Corps MN & IA (CCMI) crew put them there.

These piles are the remains of European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), an invasive species that is highly prevalent in the Metro area. Also known as common buckthorn, this species originates in Europe and was brought over to the United States as a prized hedge plant. With its scraggly shape, sharp thorns, and dense growth, buckthorn does make a nice thick hedge. Unfortunately, it is also highly competitive and incredibly adept at taking over natural areas, especially disturbed or urbanized areas. If left to its own devices, most buckthorn populations will push out native species until they have created a dense monoculture. Any managed natural landscape around the Twin Cities likely manages for buckthorn—and that’s where CCMI crews and all those brush piles come into play.

Conservation Corps crew member cutting up a large buckthorn stem with a chainsaw. Larger buckthorn must be cut into smaller pieces to be removed from a site.

Conservation Corps crew member cutting up a large buckthorn stem with a chainsaw. Larger buckthorn must be cut into smaller pieces to be removed from a site.

Buckthorn management is one of the primary projects that Central District Corps crews work on throughout the winter and early spring (as well as in the early and late autumn). Although it takes a lot of time and resources, buckthorn treatment is fairly straightforward.

Buckthorn is cut low to the ground, and then the stump is treated to prevent re-sprouting.

Buckthorn is cut low to the ground, and then the stump is treated to prevent re-sprouting.

The first step involves cutting the buckthorn plants with what’s called a “low-stump” cut. Basically this means cutting the stem flush or a few inches above the ground level using anything from hand trimmers to chainsaws, depending on the size of the buckthorn. Once cut, the buckthorn is piled either for future burning or for removal (though in some highly natural or segregated sites stems might be left on-site to decay). The left-over stumps are then treated with a “cut-stump treatment.” This is a form of chemical treatment where you target the cambium layer (or layer just inside the ring of bark) of the stump with herbicide. The cambium layer is where many nutrients pass through the stem to the roots, so the herbicide is pulled down into the root systems, fully killing the plant. Without killing the roots in this way, buckthorn has the nasty ability to re-sprout with even greater force and twice as many stems.

*Understandably, chemical treatments often make people nervous, especially in public recreational areas, so I should note that cut-stump treatments are chosen specifically for their safety. They are one of the most effective chemical application methods to ensure that chemical doesn’t run off anywhere other than the treated area, and the least amount of chemical is utilized.

So next time you’re enjoying a stroll down a trail and see piles of brush around, look for the dark bark, the sharp thorns, and the black berries. Chances are a Corps crew has passed through there, fighting a valiant battle against invasive buckthorn to improve the overall condition of the native landscape.

A stump is only treated along the outside ring (the cambium layer) so that all the chemical soaks into the stump instead of running off. This is called a “cut-stump” treatment.

A stump is only treated along the outside ring (the cambium layer) so that all the chemical soaks into the stump instead of running off. This is called a “cut-stump” treatment.

End product: Removed buckthorn piled along a trail for future removal, and a much clearer interior forest.

End product: Removed buckthorn piled along a trail for future removal, and a much clearer interior forest.