The Youth Forest Monitoring Program is gearing up for its 20th year in the field, putting high school students into the forest to learn and make recommendations for how their backyard forest should be managed.
The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is required, like other national forests, to monitor conditions on the ground. Two decades ago YFMP began offering high school students internships that trained and put them in the field, collecting data and doing a post-season public presentation of findings and recommendations.
“We have 20 years' worth of data that was collected and to see the progression of treatments that have worked and what has worked well or not in certain areas across the forest,” said Forest Service public affairs officer Kathy Bushnell. “We don’t have a lot of money to always prioritize funding for monitoring, so it’s been a critical piece the students have been able to do.”
Students accepted into YFMP receive a week of training to learn techniques and protocols for monitoring water, soils, recreation and wildlife. Following training, students split into five teams and under the direction of field instructors, monitor between 45-50 sites on the forest, including a trip to the Scapegoat Wilderness.
“What makes YFMP unique is that it’s very local and has local partners that support it financially,” Bushnell said. “That’s huge for a program that doesn’t have funding coming through a specific agency.”
The $80,000 program receives support from The Montana Discovery Foundation, Lewis and Clark County, Helena College and others.
Executive director of the foundation Debbie Anderson found the mix of kids from rural and urban schools as a big positive of the program. She also praised program leader Liz Burke with the Forest Service for YFMP’s longevity.
Field instructor and retired Capital High science teacher Tom Pedersen touted the preparation the program provides for future scientists.
“It’s a huge step in the door for those kids to go into this field,” he said. “They’re trained at a level where we can go out with the scientists and pretty much do a lot of things they want us to do.
“It’s neat to watch kids grow up and become young scientists and become the people that are training you.”
A survey found 40 percent of YFMP students went on to work seasonally or permanently for the Forest Service.
“It’s one of the greatest ways to get out and explore your backyard,” said four-year veteran of the program Caleb Noble. “I never would’ve made it to most of these places on my own. These guys know how to make the outdoors a lot of fun. What kept me coming back was the hands-on experience with ecology and applying it to practical applications.”
During his first year the troop discovered noxious weeds in the Scapegoat. In subsequent years he returned to the site, observing the effectiveness of pulling and spraying the Forest Service took on at the behest of the student recommendations.
The recommendations and public presentations are important in giving the students and the program a voice, Pedersen said.
“The idea is to go back to these sites and see how it changes over time,” he said. “You can’t make decisions based on one year and looking at the past gives us the big picture.”
Professionals with the Forest Service have readily offered their time and equipment to help the program succeed, Pedersen said. Students have been able to monitor water, beetle kill, grazing and even impacts from climate change in the program’s 20 years, he added.
“I hope this program continues … and when money gets tight we find a way to fund and keep it going because the long-term benefits are tremendous and outweigh any money that’s put into it,” he said.
While conservation corps programs contribute valuable work on forests across Montana, YFMP has gained regional accolades for its local drive and emphasis on science and monitoring, Bushnell said.
“I’d say it is more important now that ever to get the younger generation connected to public lands and the natural world,” she said. “Not only have the past 20 years been very successful but it’s why we’re seeing a renewed commitment to the program, because of how important it is and important it will be for the next 20 years.”