What did you do this summer?
As the summer sun burned off the morning fog, a team of students led this day by 16-year-old Maria Contreras left the visitor center at San Pedro Valley County Park on a mission: find English ivy and other invasive plants along miles of trails.
English ivy, well known for climbing fences and walls, chokes out native species that local wildlife depend on for food and shelter.
“We have a long list of invasives to search for,” said Contreras, who will be a junior at Belmont’s Carlmont High School in fall 2016. “We enter the location using GPS coordinates and take a picture with an iPad to make a record of it.”
Many invasive flowers, vines, shrubs and trees cause real trouble. Ice plant forms thick mats with shallow roots that destabilize slopes and dunes. Yellow starthistle is a threat to horses and invades grasslands. Nonnative grasses suck up moisture and push out native wildflowers that feed butterflies.
The team is relentless: it can take close to an hour to hike a mile while they scan hillsides, creek beds, meadows and more for the presence of invasives.
When they are assigned a park, they begin the morning with stretching exercises and check to ensure they have plenty of water, a first aid kit, walkie talkies, lunches, snacks and more. The crew consists of two college student leaders, Artemis Mosier and Guillermo Vazquez, both from San Jose State University, and six local high school students.
Together, they select a student leader for the day. This helps develop leadership skills and promotes self-confidence.
They then set out on the trail ahead, iPads in hand. Many students return year after year for what is hard but rewarding work.
Carlos Maciel, 17, is a recent graduate of Woodside High School spending his fourth summer working in the parks. He has plans to become a U.S. Marine.
Contreras plans to pursue a degree in environmental studies once in college.
Ivan Nava, 16, is a student at Eastside College Prepatory School in East Palo Alto. “Without this and them,” he said, gesturing to his teammates, “I would probably be in the streets getting in trouble.”
Plus, the wages he earns “helps my family with money issues.”
They are all members of the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a nonprofit organization that engages youth and young adults in the protection and restoration of parks, marine sanctuaries and cultural landmarks in all 50 states. The San Mateo County Parks Department has partnered with the group since 2015 to tackle numerous projects with funding from Measure A, the countywide half-cent sales tax.
The opportunity for teenagers to participate provides them with the chance to hold a paying job and gain valuable experience that can lead to any number of careers while actively engaging them in the outdoors and in their community.
“These students are providing county parks with valuable data,” said Parks Director Marlene Finley. “What they get in return are the restorative benefits of time spent in nature and the opportunity to apply their skills in GIS technology.”