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Blackwell Job Corps pilots conservation education program for students

Katie Thoresen

Blackwell Job Corps members kneel and sit on the edge of the forest behind some of the cabins at Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River.

They sift through downed branches, leaves, and pine needles searching for the small green leaves of goutweed, an aggressive invasive species.

Katie Thoresen

“It's particularly tricky because it can grow really well in shade,” Rosie Page explains to everyone gathered. Page is the coordinator of WHIP, Wisconsin Headwaters Invasives Partnership.

The group is one of several made up of Blackwell Job Corps members working on the campus Wednesday.

They each rotate to different parts of the campus tackling different invasives like goutweed, marsh and bull thistle, Japanese barberry, and buckthorn.

“It's a great opportunity for this property because they only have so many staff. They're always getting students to come, and they've been wanting to do more invasives work for years,” said Page.

Through a federal grant secured by Lumberjack RC&D, Page has been able to work with organizations like Trees for Tomorrow to help restore land and clean up invasives.

The work on the Trees for Tomorrow campus comes along with a major effort to replant trees after major storms in recent years.

“Anytime a logging operation comes through, it opens up the ground for invasive species to come in, so it's been a long time coming to get these tackled. We've attempted small groups, but never an army like this,” said Todd Starling, environmental educator at Trees for Tomorrow. “This is great to see running back and forth being able to combine education and getting a handle on invasives is just an amazing opportunity for us.”

This kind of invasive species work aligned well with a new program Blackwell Job Corps is piloting.

“It's just a really cool example of a partnership between a lot of different organizations that came together really quickly and is working out. Even the weather is working out for us today,” said Page.

Katie Thoresen

Based in Forest County, Blackwell is one of 120 job corps centers across the country and one of 24 directly affiliated with the U.S. Forest Service.

Students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are provided skills training with no cost to them or their families.

“Our students are really great people that just haven't had the opportunity in life that a lot of us have,” said Annie Schenkoske, the Blackwell Job Corps Center Director.

The students at Blackwell can train in a variety of fields like carpentry, welding, forestry, masonry, and wildland firefighting.

Since they’re all related to Forest Service work, Blackwell also wants all students, no matter their vocation, to learn about the basics of land conservation.

It’s piloting this program that could be implemented at all 24 Forest Service Job Corps Centers in the U.S.

The invasives species work being done was in partnership with Society of American Foresters, Trees for Tomorrow, and Project Learning Tree.

“They are really the ones that helped bring this all together to give our students an experience that hopefully they will remember for the rest of their lives. And some things that if they are out, and they're using the woods, or if they're in the forest, that they know how to take care of it,” said Schenkoske.

Society of American Foresters Director of Professional Development Naomi Marcus says that students will have the ability to recognize that no matter what their trade, they’ll have an impact on conservation.

“Every organization has limited capacity and bandwidth, and we can have greater impact on the landscape and in our communities by leveraging the resources, the knowledge and experience and the skills that our partners can bring forth and really make that difference in the communities,” said Marcus.

Taylor Smith, 25, has spent the last eight months going through the wildland fire training with Blackwell Job Corps.

While she doesn’t plan on doing invasive species work, she appreciates the range of knowledge she’s been able to learn through the program.

“You're always learning, I appreciate a job where you can always learn something new, or meet new people, get their backgrounds, and just do something diverse,” said Smith.

Smith is from Kansas City and became interested in applying for Blackwell Job Corps after “flip flopping” through other jobs, as she put it.

“I didn't have a sense of fulfillment until I had one job where I was planting trees. And I was like, ‘Okay, let me look more into forestry and stuff like having to do with nature and the Forest Service and all that different type of stuff.’ When I found this [Blackwell], and it's free, I was like, ‘Okay, I can do that,’” said Smith.

She believes she’ll find that fulfillment working on wildfires, specifically in dispatch.

Smith has a job lined up and will be leaving Blackwell in a few weeks.

“It's a good experience. It's a good opportunity. They're giving you the opportunity. You're the one that has to put in the work,” said Smith.

The students are now having to put in a little more work learning about the invasive species and how to care for the land.

It’s work Schenkoske believes will take them far.

“We're giving them the opportunity to travel a little bit to see some things, to have some experiences that they've never had before. All with the goal of them getting a really good job at the end of the program,” said Schenkoske.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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