Leia Larsen

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June 14, 2013
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BLM, Youth Corps recruit veterans for local wildfire mitigation

PARSHALL— Morgan Gulch is usually quiet apart from the undulating of nearby Williams Creek. But since last week, the gully clamors with roaring chainsaws and thumping axes. The campground is crammed with white BLM vehicles and roughly two dozen colorful tents. Workers outfitted with hard hats, chainsaw chaps and sturdy shoes are spread across a long, steep ridgeline.

This summer, Grand County is serving as a staging ground for veterans and young adults seeking hands-on training in public lands management.

The trainees range from 21-35 years old. They come from as far east as Pennsylvania and New York, as far west as California and Washington, and as near as Fort Collins. Half are returning veterans.

Recruited through the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, they’ll work with the Bureau of Land Management to remove hazardous beetle-kill trees that can fuel future wildfires. Their reasons for joining the program vary. Some are exploring careers in forestry and fire management. Some are hoping to catch the BLM’s eye for more permanent employment. Some are looking for summer adventure and a chance to explore the West.

But the greatest allure comes from guaranteed seasonal work.

Clearing a career path

This year, the Youth Corps amped up its efforts to recruit returning veterans, who make up half of the 20-person team. The program is part of the Veteran Green Corps, a nationwide initiative with federal public lands agencies promoting careers in conservation. It’s also the first year trainees will learn basic skills to help fight wildland fires on an as-needed basis.

“I think it’s a great deal. What it does is allows them to get an understanding of what, exactly, wildland fire is, to find out if it’s what they want to do,” said Kevin Thompson, fire management specialist at the BLM’s Kremmling office.

According to Mark Wertheimer, associate director at Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, another objective Veteran Green Corps is to assimilate veterans back into civilian life.

“The main goal is to help military veterans find employment in general, and the next step is for them to transition to long-term employment with the public lands agencies,” Wertheimer said.

The recruits’ training began on June 3 at Morgan Gulch campground, located about 45 minutes south of Parshall.

Fresh perspective

Tara Earl, 31, served in the army driving trucks and hauling fuel in Iraq for seven years. She then moved to Logan, Utah to study sociology and criminology at Utah State University. After graduating last spring, Earl saw Veteran Green Corps fire training as an opportunity.

“It was a quick, fast job right of college,” said Earl, the only female recruit. “I get to come out, make some money, then have a couple months when I get home to find the job I want.”

The recruits earn free meals and $335 a week while doing pine-beetle tree mitigation. By July, training in firefighting will be complete. If called to help fight fires, the pay jumps to as much as $17.40 an hour. They sleep in tents and camp all summer, even during weekends off.

“I love the outdoors, I was going to be in the mountains all summer anyway. Now I get to learn a trade and make some money,” said Chris Benton, 30, an army veteran enrolled in environmental studies at the University of Colorado. “Everyone should do it. Who needs showers?”

Although fire mitigation work requires several hours of hands-on training, the veterans have skills they’ve acquired through their military service that are directly applicable to the job. They’ve learned perseverance and determination. They know how to work as a team. They have physical endurance. They can adapt well to outdoor environments and variable weather. They understand hazard management.

“It helps you get away from the normal pulls of day-to-day society, because you’ve done it before on a longer and larger scale,” said Brian Kotzot, 31, who worked as an army scout for seven years. “It’s not easier, but it’s a fraction of it, I’d say. It’s still hard, still tough, but it’s not exactly a year away in a foreign country.”

The BLM first used veterans on chainsaw crews last year, but the pilot program had only three recruits. This year, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps focused on bringing in more veterans by promoting the opportunity on college campuses, through social media, via word-of-mouth and with Denver-based Veteran Green Jobs.

Mutual benefits

According to Thompson, young veterans’ desire for vocational experience and the BLM’s need for manpower make the program mutually beneficial.

Removal of beetle-killed trees is time-consuming and dangerous. The brittle dead wood easily snaps, falling in unpredictable directions. Trees can rot from the inside and collapse unexpectedly. Workers must first scout a tree that presents minimal danger. They look for a clear fall line, then knock at the wood to determine its soundness. They create an escape route by removing stumps and debris. They then gently whittle the tree with back cuts and front cuts, working to control the direction of the tree’s fall. As the tree shakes and begins to “talk,” the worker shouts a warning, then announces when the area is clear. The process can take up to ten minutes.

“I’ve never been on a chainsaw in my life before, so this is all very foreign to me. I’m learning a lot every day,” said Tony Willey, 24, a former marine from Las Vegas.

On a chainsaw training day on Thursday, June 6, each recruit was required to fell at least three trees, around a team total of 75 for the day. The number is underwhelming when looking at the staggering amount of grey, needleless lodgepole stands spanning down the small ridge.

According to Thompson, Morgan Gulch became an important BLM site for removing hazardous vegetative fuels because of a ranch and subdivision below and a house on the next ridge over. A wildfire in the area could spread quickly, fueled by thousands of dead pines, and ravage the nearby residential properties.

After training in Morgan Gulch, the recruits will move on to sites near Carbondale, Meeker and Independence Mountain, mitigating campsites and roadsides. Most also hope to also assist with wildfires come July.

Conservation programs through Rocky Mountain Youth Corps have been wildly popular. For civilian programs, Wertheimer estimates they receive four applications for each position. For this year’s veteran program, they received about 25 applicants. They hope to expand the program into other agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service in coming years.

Whether the BLM continues the program into future seasons depends on funding. But Wertheimer said that as long as there’s a need, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps will continue building opportunities.

“Even if funding fades in coming years, we’ll still be interested in serving our military veterans,” he said.

Once this year’s season ends, most of the veteran and civilian recruits will return to complete college programs in the fall. But some, like Tara Earl, will stay on as long as they’re needed or until the snow flies.

“I’ll go back to Logan, then do some job searching, do something with my degree, but this is always open,” she said. “Until you find what you want, do what’s fun and what pays the bills.”

Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.

It’s still hard, still tough, but it’s not exactly a year away in a foreign country.” Brian Kotzot, veteran and Rocky Mountain Youth Corps recruit.

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The Sky-Hi News Updated Jun 14, 2013 08:07PM Published Jun 14, 2013 03:06PM Copyright 2013 The Sky-Hi News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.