A crew of teenagers headed up the Pacific Crest Trail from Bucks Summit, backpacks loaded with camping gear and tools most had never used.
Ahead lay miles of maintenance on a trail only one of them had hiked, and a week of camping with people they had known less than a month.
Dropping her pack at the work site, Lydia Anguiono wielded a pair of loppers – awkwardly at first, straining to bring the 18-inch handles together until the curved blades sliced through a rust-red manzanita stem.
“We’re no longer in the streets,” she said with a quiet smile as she tossed the severed shrub down the hillside.
Anguiono, who attends De Anza High School in Richmond, is one of 22 teens participating in a Plumas National Forest program introducing local and inner-city youths to natural resource management – and to each other. Half of the students came from Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, the other half from Plumas and Butte counties.
Some of them are seeing snow and stars for the first time. For others, it’s an introduction to the world of city kids.
Dubbed the P-CREW (Plumas Conservation Restoration Education in Watersheds), they are working in areas affected by fires. By the time they tackled widening the trail, they had already planted willows to slow post-fire erosion, pulled up invasive star thistle and piled forest debris for winter burning.
“Doing something feels pretty good,” said Elias Montez Jones, a De Anza senior.
He set aside his loppers to retrieve a small branch encrusted with an insect’s elaborate mud nest. “You guys want to see a beehive made out of dirt?” he yelled to the others.
Exchanging computer games for bugs, birds and trees is at the heart of the pilot program divided into two five-week sessions. During their month-plus in the woods, students are meeting fisheries biologists, timber managers and outdoor recreation specialists.
Inspired by the work these professionals are doing, Salma Ramirez, a De Anza student, is already considering a career in natural resources – “if I don’t like the medical field.”
P-CREW is an expansion of a partnership between the Forest Service and Plumas County Unified School District involving students in restoring areas burned by wildfire. Using $200,000 in fire restoration settlement funds, the program is designed to provide resource management education while connecting urban and rural youths.
Situated at opposite ends of the Feather River watershed, the students have come together on the ground to learn new skills and meet new people, said Amy Hafsrud, P-CREW coordinator with Sierra Institute for Community and Environment, a Plumas County organization promoting healthy forests and watersheds. Each student will return home with first aid and CPR certificates as well as a $500 stipend.
And they will have survived five weeks away from home without cellphones.
“That’s long enough to make a difference in their lives,” Hafsrud said.
Xitially Lupian already sees the world differently.
“Before I was just like, ‘Oh yeah! Save the planet!’ But I didn’t do anything about it. Now I can,” said Lupian, a student at MetWest High School in Oakland.
Others see their communities differently.
For Margaret Flannigan, a Paradise High School student, the insights are internal: “These five weeks have definitely shown me how strong I am mentally – how much what I think that I can’t do is in my head.”
What’s so gratifying about watching the students work together is knowing that their exposure to new ideas will help them craft more effective solutions to whatever problems confront them, said Mike Donald, a Plumas Forest district ranger.
“These hard-working students are our future land stewards, and they’ve discovered aspects of themselves they can fall back on in the days ahead,” he said.