Young people get valuable work in Lewis County forests

We should always celebrate when young people gain experience working in the woods. That’s exactly what’s happening this summer in Lewis County, Wash., where 28 teenagers are working in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest as part of a U.S. Forest Service program called Discovery Team, as the Centralia Chronicle reports.

Miles deep in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a crew of workers is busy clearing overgrowth from a narrow road winding through the woods. Clad in safety vests and hard hats, they’re fanned out on the steep slopes along each side of the road, some cutting brush, others sweeping the pavement clear.

Not far away, another crew is buzzing around a trailhead, trimming overhanging branches and uprooting tall grass that has encroached a parking area. Look closely, and you’ll notice that these workers aren’t rangers — they’re teenagers, White Pass and Morton students who are the Forest Service’s secret weapon for five weeks each summer.

For the kids, Discovery Team isn’t just about gaining experience in the forest. Many alumni of the program, which started in 2000, have received full-time, permanent jobs because of Discovery Team, including with the Forest Service.

(USFS forestry technician Debbie Hogoboom) talks through the safety concerns of each task and integrates games like “name that species” as the students move around the worksite. She provides detailed explanations about why each job is important, rather than just instructing the students on how to do it. At the trailhead, she noted that the tall grass could become a fire hazard if visitors carelessly toss aside cigarette butts after it dries out. The program’s backers say it’s care like this that makes Discovery Team so valuable for the students.

“A lot of the kids that did work for me got jobs immediately, and they always had good references,” said Debbie Layman, the program coordinator with the White Pass School District. “[Employers] know that if they’ve done Discovery Team, they’re really excited to hire them.”

The program is an incredible resource for teenagers in East Lewis County, where jobs for teens are in short supply but the forest is all around.

Hogoboom, who graduated from White Pass herself and has spent her whole life in East Lewis County, said many local kids grow up unaware of the outdoors opportunities all around them.

“Some kids who’ve never been exposed to the woods are now seeing what their community — outside of Highway 12 — is all about,” she said.

(Bryan DeLong, a White Pass High School teacher who has been a Discovery Team crew leader for 12 years,) added that being in a new environment allows students to take on different roles and interact outside their normal cliques.

“It takes us outside of the school into the surrounding area,” he said. “It reconnects us with our home.”

Discovery Team’s annual budget of $60,000 is paid for in part by Secure Rural Schools, a federal program for rural communities that was just extended by Congress this year. Discovery Team is paying dividends every summer.

Emily Adams, who graduated from White Pass High School this spring, is in her third year on Discovery Team, serving as an assistant crew leader this year. She loves the iconic views from working at places like Mount St. Helens, but she also surprised herself with how much she enjoyed the dirty work — and how it brought her closer to her classmates.

“It’s really satisfying to clean out the culverts and see the water flowing through where it wasn’t before,” said Adams, who will be attending Central Washington University in the fall. “After going out on the job and working together and getting dirty and shoveling in the mud and getting exhausted, it’s a bonding experience.”