Youth Corps: Trail blazers of Garfield County
Hikers are goal-oriented people. Setting off from a starting point, they work their way along a trail toward their ultimate goal, enjoying a sense of accomplishment at the end.
But many hikers rarely think about how that trail got there and how it remains so well kept. Unless hikers bushwhack their way to the top, they owe some of the credit for their accomplishment to an unseen, underappreciated force.
“It is wasn’t for this program, the trail system at this end of the mountains would be in bad shape,” said Joe Fazzi, who works for the U.S. Forest Service in Rifle, “We just don’t have the recreational crew to do the trails. It just isn’t going to happen with two of us.”
Fazzi is talking about the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. The Youth Corps’ goal is to maintain hiking trails.
The Youth Corps is a nationwide collection of crews, part of the nonprofit AmeriCorps, who spend time working outdoors to improve communities. Since 2011 the corps has been improving trails in Garfield County.
Three different crews are working in Garfield County this summer. They include the Community Development Crew (ages 14-16), Regional Youth Corps (ages 16-19) and Conservation Corps (ages 18 and up). Twenty-three Garfield County residents are working for the Youth Corps.
Earlier this month, the Conservation Corps was working on the Mitchell Creek trail in West Glenwood. The 10-person crew has been working on trails in Garfield County since June 3 and will be continuing until Aug. 12. The crews stay on site for a week or more, camping out along the trailheads until their work is done.
Drew Langel is the crew leader in his third year with the Conservation Corps. He and assistant crew leader Chris Braun direct their crew on the maintenance that each trail needs.
“If the trail is in bad shape, we go up with hand tools and might have to reroute sections, widen the trails, create water diversion structures, retaining walls and do rock work, especially with eroded soil,” Langel said.
The crew has members from all across the country. Langel is from Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Braun is from Breckenridge.
One of their members, Marge Kneuer, is from Rochester, New York. Kneuer is also a crew member for the Mercyhurst University’s rowing team in Pennsylvania. As part of a tradition within her team, Kneuer decided to join the Conservation Corps for this summer.
“I’m the fourth team member to do it,” Kneuer said. “I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s been a life-changing experience so far.”
The Conservation Corps demands a lot of hard, physical work from its members, but it’s so much more than just trail maintenance.
Members who complete the requirements receive a stipend of more than $1,400 to go toward any educational pursuit they choose. The Conservation Corps also requires 100 hours of educational experience.
“It can be anything from crew members teaching each other something useful, to guest speakers, to going to a museum,” said Braun. “Really anything educational.”
The crew also has the freedom to explore all that Colorado has to offer. Workers are provided with a gas card and can travel anywhere they wish on weekends, which they have off.
“We go on a lot of hikes,” said Kneuer. “We’ve hiked some 14ers, and we are going to Silverton this weekend.”
Without the Youth Corps and its various crews, Garfield County would likely be unable to maintain the trails in the area. The Conservation Corps certainly welcomes praise when they get it but understand that they work an often times thankless job.
“There are so many benefits for us,” Langel said, “but it’s often a humbling job. If you do it right, people don’t even know that there is anything different. That’s kind of cool.”
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Grace Wesseling is an animal lover, a cheerleader of seven years and another soon-to-be graduate of Bridges High School, class of 2021.