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The Next Generation of Environmental Stewards Is Training at Cook County Forest Preserves

Thursday, August 04, 2022
Special to suffredin.org
by Patty Wetli

While federal legislation to create a modern-day Civilian Conservation Corps inches its way through Congress, the Cook County Forest Preserve is moving full steam ahead with programs that deploy crews of youth and adults to tackle restoration and maintenance projects across the district’s acreage.

On an August morning that was about to turn swampy, 17-year-old Nasser Broadnax and 15-year-old Trevon Dixon were making steady progress raking and tamping down freshly laid gravel as they improved a trail at Sand Ridge Nature Center.

Both admitted they’d still be sleeping if it weren’t for the summer job with Chicago Conservation Leadership Corps (one of the preserves’ three corps options, all paid positions), but it’s “way better to be productive,” said Dixon. “I like the hard work.”

The high schoolers were part of a 10-person crew (plus crew leaders) assigned to Sand Ridge for a five-week period, the majority of the teens hailing from either Calumet Park or South Holland. Corps crews posted to other nature centers are similarly drawn from surrounding communities to cut down on travel times, explained Alice Brandon, resource programs manager with the district.

With nature center staff focused on serving visitors, including providing public programming, corps members offer a much-needed manpower boost when it comes to managing the preserves’ 70,000 acres, Brandon said.

“We have volunteers, Conservation Corps crews, contractors and staff,” she said. “They’re all tools in our toolkit. We have to decide who to deploy where and for what.”

Contractors tend to have more experience and access to heavy equipment, adult corps members may be sent to more far-flung locations to work on more complex or tedious jobs, while the youth are stationed at the district’s nature centers, which have more amenities for the teens (like restrooms and air conditioning) as well as more varied projects, Brandon explained.

The centers frankly also give the youth corps higher visibility with the public, a strategic consideration for the funding-strapped donor-reliant programs that operate under partnerships with organizations like Friends of the Forest Preserves and Student Conservation Association. “It’s free advertising,” said Brandon.

VIDEO: Conservation Corps in action at Sand Ridge Nature Center. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)



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