CLINTON TOWNSHIP -- Twenty-two teenagers from Warren and Hunterdon counties are waking up at dawn this summer, heading to the woods and hiking to the top of a mountain - five days a week. And that's not the hard part.
Once they make it to the ridge, the teens set to work splitting logs and rearranging 400-pound boulders. Under the supervision of adult crew leaders, they're building trails to make Hunterdon County parks more accessible to the public. The labor is intense, but these high school students claim to be having fun.
"I'm not really a ‘nature person,'" said Liz Pudlak, a 17-year-old at Voorhees High School, "but it's really rewarding. It's cool to think that we're building something that will last like 50 years."
Wearing hardhats and boots, these kids make up the New Jersey GreenTeam, an environmental conservation and education program managed by the Student Conservation Association and the Hunterdon County Parks Department. It is primarily funded by Exxon Mobile, which has a facility that does hazard-mitigation research in Clinton Township.
The New Jersey program is in its ninth year, but the SCA - a national organization - has taken more than 50,000 high school and college kids outside over the course of 50 years, according to Jon Regan, the head crew leader. Regan, a Montclair resident who works as a middle school history teacher in Bergen County the other months of the year, noted that this crew has the highest returning rate of any other in the country.
"To me, that's an indication of the dedication of these kids," said Regan, who grew up in Long Valley is in his fifth year working for the program. "It inspires me."
This summer, they're split into two trail crews: one at the Cushetunk Mountain nature preserve - overlooking Round Valley Reservoir - and the other at Point Mountain in Lebanon Township. The Cushetunk crew has dubbed their work "mountainscaping."
"Whoever made this trail just went straight up the mountain," crew leader Lauren Smith said on her way up, apologizing for the steepness of the ascent. "We curse him every day," she joked.
But Smith, a 21-year-old senior at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, sailed up the rocky path without seeming to break a sweat.
"They're doing work that we would not be able to do," said county park supervisor Bill Clother, said of the kids in the program. "And they do a fantastic job."
Greg Brittingham, a 19-year-old from Califon, said the work is fun, but it's also about the people.
"Everybody cares about the environment here," Brittingham said. "All of my best friends come from SCA." In addition to working together on something they care about, he said: "When you work a whole summer with someone, you know them really well."
Part of the program's premise is: If you don't experience nature, you won't be interested in preserving it, Regan explained. That worked for Taylor Schmidt, a 16-year-old from Lebanon Township.
"Day one, I was like: I could totally do this for the rest of my life," Schmidt said.
The Voorhees High School student had planned to become a teacher, but then discovered how much he loved working with nature.
Regan said the kids, who earn minimum wage for their labor, spend 80 percent of their time is dedicated to "service to the land," and the rest is spent on environmental education.
"The most eye-opening thing was when Jon had these envelopes with different materials on the outside," Schmidt said. On the inside: the amount of time it takes that material to decompose, he said. "Plastic, what does that take? Like a thousand years. Styrofoam, they don't even know because it's never decomposed."
Next week, the session's last, the New Jersey GreenTeam gets to relax: They're going backpacking in the Catskills.
Copywright 2010 NJ Star-Ledger