Rakes and pitchforks in hand, local youth widened the overgrown Hazelnut Trail in San Pedro Valley Park this month and fulfilled other tasks at the direction of the park rangers.
A group of high school aged youth called Student Conservation Association cleared trail-side vegetation, repaired trail tread, installed benches and interpretive signs and did many other important tasks throughout the county.
While one crew was dispatched to the Hazelnut Trail, three other crews are working at Mirada Surf County Park, James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and Quarry Park this summer. Their work is underwritten by JobTrain and the San Mateo County Parks and Recreation Foundation.
SCA is open to youth 16-19 years old who are paid for the work they do. They work outside in the county parks four days a week and attend environmental classes and team building activities on the fifth day.
They also enjoy recreational activities and camping trips. Older team leaders and park rangers supervise the youth, who are assigned to a crew for a month.
The program has existed for three years. It receives federal and county funding to pay the wages.
Bettina Mok, SCA regional program manager of the community program, came up with the idea for the program while attending a conference with representatives from the other groups with whom SCA partners.
"They needed to engage more young people and get more hands on the land. Our mission is to create
the next generation of environmental stewards. There's a lot of land and a lot of people out of work," she said.
The youth benefit by gaining job experience using hand tools, by learning about what their own local parks have to offer by way of services and for future careers and by team building and learning how to make decisions.
"They gain an appreciation of the environment and conservation. We expected them to do hard work and gain some hard skills," she said.
The rangers at each park make a list of projects that need attention. At the 3.7 mile Hazelnut Trail, the work included bringing the trail up to the park standards because it had become overgrown. The crew used rakes and pitchforks to bring it back into shape.
"Hazelnut is our most overgrown trail," said Park Ranger Dave Vasquez, a native Pacifican. "It's very thick and lush and difficult to cut everything back. It's very arduous. It's been great to have them. We've been thin on employment with the economic situation. It really helps. Three or four rangers cut ahead of them. Everyone has been suffering through poison oak and working really hard. The brushing also allows the trail machine operator to re-tread the trail. There are ruts and the trail is moving over to the edge."
Besides greatly improving Hazelnut, Vasquez and the other rangers found more jobs for the SCA workers to do. They are conducting native plant planting projects and helping the rangers maintain the horseshoe pit and the picnic area.
"They are carefully removing plants, putting them in the native soil and planting them in the parking lot island at the visitor center and at other parks," Vasquez said.
Recently, the crew moved on to Half Moon Bay where they pruned cypress trees.
Pacifica resident Katja Hugsted-Hallman, 18, is a member of the SCA crew. She would recommend SCA to anyone. She'd sign up to do the work again.
"I think it's a lot better than working in an office or at a burger place or on a computer. You get to be outside and enjoy nature and have a lot of fun," she said. "The park rangers make it a lot of fun."
Although she is not an experienced hiker, she enjoyed her time on the steep overgrown trail, but she called her time there the hardest thing about her job. Besides the work days, which begin with team-building warm-up exercises, the youth have educational days.
"We talk about issues like pollution and global warming and what people in the community are doing to help with that," she said.
A 2010 Terra Nova grad, Hugsted-Hallman will attend San Francisco State University next year. She plays flute and piccolo and plans to have a career in music.
The Hazelnut crew has four members who returned from last summer. One is enrolling in college in the fall in an environmental studies program because of her experience with SCA last summer. Seeing members return is a benefit about the program Mok did not expect.
"They were really attached to this work and like this type of work. They have gained a lot of mentorship from their leaders. They have been really specific about the leadership qualities they find admirable," she said.
It's been challenging to pick them up at locations from one end of the county to the other.
"We have the capacity to do that, but if someone is late, we hold up the whole crew," Mok said.
It's sad when the month long session ends and the crews disband. "We don't have continued work for them or for the leaders," Mok said. "We would like to develop more longer term opportunities by plugging into green jobs. We are starting green job classes."
If funding permits, the program will expand next year into the area around Pescadero.
"The county is bringing together non profits and community colleges to bring more green opportunities to youth. There is a consortium of folks creating that opportunity. San Mateo County parks are a huge resource in the area. The people who work there are really dedicated but understaffed. There is a lot of land to manage. It's an honor for our youth to assist them," Mok said.
Vasquez, whose interest in park stewardship and management began as a college-age volunteer, couldn't be more happy with SCA.
"The kids have been great. They have a phenomenal attitude. A lot of them returned from last year. They are developing leadership qualities. We have to scramble to get more work for them because they complete their tasks so fast and efficiently. We try to be involved with them as much as we can. We keep in touch with the trail leaders.
We supply tools and supplies. We appreciate all their hard work," he said.
SCA accepts applications from high school and college age youth.