Helping hands

Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge recently reaped the benefits from a program that focuses on youth with an interest in a career benefiting Mother Nature.

The projects that involved youth with Groundwork Cincinnati-Mill Creek included building a foot bridge along Turkey Trail and planting grass plugs on a plains section of the 7,724-acre refuge, located just south of U.S. 50 near the Jackson County line with Jennings County.

Groundwork was formed in 1994 in response to reports by the Ohio Department of Health that Mill Creek had become polluted to record levels. The creek flows through downtown Cincinnati and empties into the Ohio River.

To date, more than 39,000 Green Team youth within Cincinnati Public Schools and others have participated in year-round educational programming using Mill Creek as a living laboratory and participating in ecological service learning projects, according to Groundwork’s website.

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As part of those efforts, Groundwork has focused on teaching youth the meaning of conservation and how to improve natural landscapes in urban settings.

The projects at the refuge, lead by Tanner Yess and others, are a part of that effort.

“One of our partners is the National Recreation and Park Association, and with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we got connected with Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge,” said Yess, who is a youth leader, field work manager and trail coordinator for Groundwork.

Alejandro Galvan, manager of the refuge, said the projects completed by the youth volunteers are important.

“Those are projects we might not have been able to do this year because we have so many other things to do,” he said.

The refuge has just six full-time employees, and cutbacks in funding over the years mean the work of volunteers is vital, Galvan said.

Yess said Groundwork uses projects like the one at Muscatatuck to teach youth about what they can do and what others are doing to maintain natural landscapes across the region.

In addition, Groundwork projects are aimed at giving those interested in careers related to the environment, including biology and zoology, some experience working in those fields.

“All the youth with us here have an interest in being park rangers or natural biologists, that sort of thing, so this is a career opportunity for them,” Yess said.

To become a member of the Green Team, teens have to submit an application just as they would any job and go through an interview process. Those selected to join the Green Team are then divided into groups based on their career interests, Yess said.

The Green Team’s visit to the refuge began Tuesday and continued through Thursday.

Two of the teens involved in the projects at the refuge, Khalil Beiting and Iyah Brown, both said they want to pursue careers involving nature and the environment.

“I’ve always loved animals and grew up with a deep passion for nature,” Beiting said. “That’s why I want to become a park ranger or a conservationist, something along the lines of what I’m doing today.”

Beiting was planting new species of grass through plugs in Muscatatuck’s grassy areas to provide the refuge with a wider variety of grasses.

“I’m not sure what I want to do entirely yet for a career,” Brown said.

She said she wanted to travel first and most likely is going to consider a career that involves nature.

Both teens understand the importance of groups like Groundwork and Muscatatuck and expressed interest and care about the future of wildlife and natural habitats.

“I don’t want to have to tell my children what a tiger was because there are no more,” Beiting said.

Brown said through Groundwork, she has learned about the different types of ecosystems and that while many have large differences, they are all interconnected and humans are a part of them, too.

“We learn a lot about how humans impact the entire environment,” she said.

Beiting said he had concerns about the health and safety not just of animals but of nature itself.

“Look at the icecaps and elephants. They are dying, and if nobody does anything about them, then they may not be here forever,” Beiting said.

He said a large part of Groundwork’s efforts was put into conservation and helping to instill conservation in the younger generation.

Brown agreed.

“I don’t know of many youth education and community-based nature programs in our area,” she said.

Yess said the teens have had many experiences involving conservation work and other projects.

“They know how to clear trails and are constantly learning things they can do to help,” he said.

While the outdoor projects requiring physical effort are important to the environment, there are other things that need to be done, such as contacting senators and representatives asking for their support to protect the environment.

“Sometimes, you have to get out and go do things (to help),” Brown said.

Beiting said he hopes to return to the refuge and do more volunteer work.

“There are always things you can do to help,” he said.

Galvan said many of the people who live in this area know about the refuge, the Hoosier National Forest and the state forests that dot the landscape.

But having the Green Team spend time at the refuge goes along with the idea of introducing residents of urban areas to nature through the refuge, Galvan said.

A second visit by the Green Team is planned for this summer, he said.

During the three days and two nights the seven students and two adults were at the refuge, they stayed in a bunkhouse used by interns in the summer, Galvan said.