VYCC upgrades Natural Area Path
Youth conservation group upgrades Natural Area path
With Saint Michael’s College purposefully expanding its robust environmental programs, much was afoot this summer in the Saint Michael’s College Natural Area across Route 15 from campus down the trail past Merrill Cemetery and the railroad tracks — even if finding that activity early in August took some effort.
After making a hard left by the college’s compost piles that were attracting much bird attention on the Monday morning of August 5, Declan McCabe of the College’s biology faculty drove his family’s seasoned Honda Accord several rattling yards over the overgrown and bumpy access trail, past a wide and glorious field of rye and a vernal pond to the right, set off by cloudless blue skies. He still had to park another hundred yards’ walk to reach early August’s most focused and well-manned trail activity, which he helped arrange and oversee.
“This is a Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC) of eight students from Burlington high schools plus their crew leaders, building steps on a steep part of the trail that was something of a health hazard to climb up or down, and also an erosion risk,” he explained to visitors he was guiding to the work site.
Keith Warner, conservation program coordinator for VYCC, and Maggie Lee, a conservation crew leader and University of Vermont student from New Hampshire, greeted McCabe while eight male students of early high school age on the VYCC crew on early lunch break sat on lumber and gravel that would become part of the trail stairs they were building. All with the exception of one student from Rice High School were Burlington High School students.
“These guys have been doing projects around the area all summer,” McCabe said, explaining how VYCC got a $7,500 grant along with supporting funds from the College to come and do the Saint Michael’s work. The reason McCabe suggested the stair project is “one portion is really hairy, with a steep section that is a serious erosion hazard, and in the other part of course in the winter is a serious health hazard since it’s so steep you could kill yourself when it gets iced over.” He says now that signs have been up for a while marking the trail heads, it’s “pretty well trafficked,” particularly by bird watchers. Both men’s and women’s cross country running teams use the trail for training, and abundant wildlife passes on the trail too, though mostly at night, documented by trail cameras.
This popularity of the site with bird watchers keeps growing — no surprise given they have discovered 154 species of birds down in the Natural Area. “The cool thing is they gather data we can use for free and we don’t have to think about it,” said McCabe. He’s joined some of their activities, such as at Christmas Bird Count.
Warner explained that VYCC is a nonprofit based in Richmond and is an organization that focuses on youth development for the State of Vermont. They use several “crew models,” including the “community crew” from Burlington that was working on the stairs project this day. Students on the crews sign on for eight-hour work days, 40 hours a week.
“While they’re completing technical conservation projects, they’re also learning how to be a member of a team,” Warner said, adding that education is built into each 8-hour day, for which the youth are paid as a summer job — “so they’re learning how to be young professionals, learning job skills, how to show up on time, wear a uniform, and how to work together.” Warner graduated from college in his home state of Pennsylvania several years ago, took a job on a conservation crew, fell in love with it and soon became a Conservation Corps coordinator, setting up projects in the off-season, building partnerships and supervising field projects. “I’ve worked all over the country from California to North Carolina, Louisiana and Vermont,” he said of this full-time job. Lee is an environmental studies major minoring in forestry at UVM, heading into her junior year. “I think connecting people with the land they’re part of and that they live on and rely on is really important, especially in an area like Burlington that’s more urban, so it’s harder to see the wild places around you,” she said.
VYCC leaders did training together early in the summer on technical skills such a trail-building, along with the team-building skills needed to run a crew. They first instruct students on the technical parts before heading out this summer to projects such as trail maintenance and bog-bridging at Rock Point, painting in Ethan Allen Park and building a timber staircase in Schmanska Park (all in Burlington) prior to the Saint Michael’s work. This was the crew’s first day on the job and in just one morning they’d cleared most of the brush from the stair site “We’ll be here for about two weeks,” Lee said.
One student worker, Matthew Orndorff, a rising junior from Burlington High School, said his mom thought joining the crew would be better for him “than lying in bed all summer,” and “I agree, I’m not bored now. I grew up in the woods, so it’s sort of a natural for me.” DJamal Aden of BHS, a rising sophomore, heard about the job from King Street Youth Center. “It’s good so far, even though I’m not really an outdoors guy, but I’m learning some skills,” he said. Otto Pierce, a rising junior at Rice, said, “I wanted something that would involve me in the community, but of course I wanted to get paid. I know I’m doing something good and not just working in the back of a kitchen, which would be fine, but here I’m gathering experience and I know I’m doing something in the community.” All said the work was hard but satisfying. McCabe said the group was looking forward to joining lunch twice during their tine working on for Saint Michael’s at the Alliot Dining Hall – a chance to get a flavor of college and Saint Michael’s.
McCabe said the location of these trail stairs was recommended to him by the local water district since the former well-used steep trail swath, running right next to the section that this crew was improving in August, had run right over a water pipe that could leak and wash the work away, and also might require digging for any repairs. All the needed materials supplied by Saint Mike’s got delivered by Alan Dickinson and his crew from College Facilities just before the work started.
The Saint Michael’s College Natural Area has about 360 acres – by comparison, the part of campus with buildings on it up the hill is only about 30 acres. “Considering it connects directly to another natural area (Woodside), that’s a lot of habitat,” McCabe said, “so we see bobcats, coyotes, red fox, grey fox, fisher cats, weasels, mink, beavers, otters, flying squirrels, red and gray squirrels.”
Trail markers are being moved to redirect trail traffic to the new section that is being cleared and improved. McCabe is also excited about artists hosted by Brian Collier and who will use the Natural Area for installations as they did last year — including one this coming semester involving clay bricks from native clay. St. Mike’s professors who use the area for their classes regularly include Trevian Stanger, Laura Stroup, McCabe and Karen Talentino, collectively representing environmental science, biology and environmental studies, while Richard Kujawa from the geography minor has done some mapping projects there. “The goal is to make it more programmatic,” McCabe said, adding that St. Mike’s initiatives in the area will ultimately stem erosion, thereby reducing phosphorous flow to Lake Champlain and ultimately reducing beach closings. “Every landowner needs to make these decisions, and collectively, if we are going to stop the lake from eutrophying,” McCabe said. “We need to be leading by example, and if a college campus can’t do it, who the heck can? And if we’re not also getting students down here and doing stuff, then what are we doing?”