Youth Ecology Corps members hoist blackberry bushes into a bin for removal. Left to right, crew leader Max Vogel, Darien Sapp, Anthwan Bell; (middle) Tyler Chocker (back row) Hayley Sheehy, Ricky Paz-Ward and Jared Larson.(Photo by Sandy Destiny)
As they tear out the gnarly and thorny vegetation invading the shores of Copeland Creek this summer, a special work crew on the SSU campus never loses sight of the big picture.
They are learning to be stewards of the land.
Seven members of the Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps have been working diligently this month to clear the Himalayan blackberry that is choking out native species along Copeland Creek and at the nearby Fairfield Osborn Preserve.
With a chance to learn how to identify plants and animals, map grasslands with a GPS and develop an understanding of the ecological systems of the area, they have developed a new kind of passion and dedication for the natural world.
It is an unexpected consequence of this summer youth jobs program offered by the Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps (SCYEC) located at SSU this summer for seven weeks.
SCYEC - which brokered the partnership between the Sonoma County Youth and Adult Development and SSU Field Stations & Nature Preserves - provides disadvantaged youth and young adults paychecks, valuable work experience, environmental education, and the opportunity to contribute to their community through ongoing outdoor experiences.
Their pay is subsidized through the Sonoma County Water Agency, who also gives the crews tools and weekly educational components.
Environmental education is the strongest component of the summer work crew's experience at SSU. Comprised of a senior crew of youths age 18-24, all agree it beats a desk job.
These youth are at-risk and materially disadvantaged. Many are on food stamps, MediCal and temporary assistance for needy families. Some are first in their families to graduate high school, and are now seeking or starting college as the first in their families.
"It has opened up my world big time," says Anthwan Bell, 18, who wants to go to college and obtain a degree in child development. One day he can see himself developing environmental education projects for his future students.
Working near Copeland Creek are (left to right, Tyler Chocker, Hayley Sheehy, Jared Larson, Anthwan Bell, Ricky Paz-Ward and Darien Sapp.(Photo by Sandy Destiny)
"Something in me just clicked one day," says Jared Larson, 21, who handles the challenges of working outdoors while afflicted with multiple sclerosis. "I felt more willing to go outside and do new things." Jared hopes to be a computer tech and his biggest accomplishment so far is earning his GED.
The only woman in the crew, Hayley Sheehy, 19, says she loves working outdoors and has been most surprised at how much water is used daily and the impact of trash on the environment. She is already studying genetics at UCDavis.
The crews are removing invasive species from the banks of Copeland Creek at two SSU sites: Fairfield Osborn Preserve and the SSU campus. The crew has removed 1,600 square meters of the invasive Himalayan blackberry from the Preserve, nearly half an acre of solid blackberry briars. They are also targeting an area of equal size along on campus near the Green Music Center.
In just a few weeks, they helped the Preserves and SSU Facilities accomplish management goals that would normally have taken months. "Their output has been amazing," said Preserve Coordinator Suzanne DeCoursey. "Not a single cane of the Himalayn blackberry is left at FOP."
Partnering with SSU Field Stations & Nature Preserves provided unique opportunities for the SCAYD crew members, including participation in on-going monitoring.
In addition to blackberry work, SSU Preserves staff trained crew members to use GPS units and to identify and map invasive grasses on 70 acres of the Preserve. The data is being used for grassland management planning conducted by Preserves staff in collaboration with SSU students and faculty.
SSU Preserve Stewards Manny Barra and Zak Beltz, who are undergraduates at SSU and nearly the same age as their senior youth crew, educated the crew about restoration techniques and ecological concepts.
While they worked, Preserve stewards taught the crews about natural history, plant and animal identification, and keystone species, such as Pacific giant salamanders at the headwaters of Copeland Creek and oak trees throughout California. They also learned about the ecological consequences of removing them from an ecosystem.
The crew caught and released newts, salamanders, Pacific tree frogs, dragonflies, damselflies, diving beetles and water striders."It wasn't so much about identifying species; it was more about understanding the life cycle and ecological impact of organisms, said Zak Beltz, SSU student and Preserves land steward.
The crew also learned about on-going research at the Preserve on the devastating ecological consequences of Sudden Oak Death. Toward the end of the week they independently pointed out many infected oaks and bays to Preserves staff, said DeCoursey.
"Crew members learned more about the importance of places like SSU's Fairfield Osborn Preserve, than they could from a sterile collection of facts would have," Beltz said.
SCAYD's role in the partnership was to recruit, supervise and support the crew members.
Crew leader Ronnie Silva, a 29-year old Marine Corps veteran, is pursuing an Associate of Arts degree at Santa Rosa Junior College and hopes to study natural resource management and entomology at SSU.
He has been inspired by "seeing how nature has it fingers in the land in every way." It is so important to him that he is not accepting a paycheck so he can have the opportunity to build his resume.
The crew is one of two that SCAYD supervises in the Rohnert Park-Cotati-Penngrove area. More than 100 youth applied for the available 18 crew member slots this summer.
Beyond the summer, they receive year-round case management services as well. The year-long program serves all of Sonoma County and youth ages 14-24.
The SCYEC project at SSU was launched thanks to a new campus partnership with the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA). In June, SCWA proposed that SSU team with the Sonoma County Adult and Youth Development for restoration work on Copeland Creek, and the work was conducted under SCWA's permit.
"The SSU Preserves, SSU Facilities, Caroline Christian (ENSP) and SCWA worked together remarkably fast to create a great summer work and education program for the youth crew," said SSU Preserves Director Claudia Luke.
The target of the work this summer - the non-native Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) is being removed because the bushes increase the risk of flooding in downstream communities (Rohnert Park) and impair the development of suitable habitat for fish and other wildlife species found in the creek, such as steelhead trout and the Western pond turtle.
Himalayan blackberry forms dense monocultures that chokes out native species. It provides an unpleasant experience for any person or larger animal that tangles with its thorns.
Removing the blackberry promotes taller tree species that shade the creek and maintain a more open understory. The native California blackberry (Rubus ursinus) also produces tasty fruit but doesn't choke out other species. Its thorns are also much less vicious.
The restoration work on Copeland Creek is being conducted in tandem with a campus-wide project on water and watersheds this year. Water Works is an academic, fine art, live theater and dance collaboration that explores inland water flow as a resource, theme, and metaphor through a year (2012-2013) of academics, fine arts, and live theatre and dance (www.sonoma.edu/waterworks).