We wheeled around the ‘Forest Closed Until Further Notice’ sign and crawled the truck up the mountain roads toward the Santa Fe National Forest (SFNF). The young adults next to me were bantering about music, feast day dances and fishing while I drove us into the mountains.

I was accompanying the Forest Stewards Youth Crew (FSYC) from the Española Ranger District to work on the closed National Forest. It had been a hot and dry summer and fire danger was at an all-time extreme. The SFNF and a handful of other Forests in the area had temporarily closed access to the public to prevent against human-caused wildfire ignitions, but the FSYC crew had special permission to carry out their work projects.

The Española crew, made up of five young adults ages 16-19 from rural communities and Pueblos in Northern New Mexico, is funded by the National Forest Foundation’s Matching Awards Program and implemented by the Forest Stewards Guild through a partnership with the Santa Fe National Forest.

This long-standing program engages disadvantaged youth by employing six crews from nine under-served communities in New Mexico to implement conservation projects aimed at promoting forest health and improving recreation connectivity in three National Forests.

The crew unloaded tools from the back of the truck, pulled on hardhats and lined up ready for work. I marveled at how efficiently the conversation turned from typical high school banter to a well-organized procession of passing tools from the truck, filling water bottles and discussing the day’s work plan.

We began our hike up the Tesuque Creek trail to a spot where last year’s rains had washed out the trail. The crew set to work repairing the section of trail and reducing the possibility for future erosion. It was eerie to be the only people in the Forest in the middle of summer, but the solitude provided a rare backdrop on this popular section of trail.

Witnessing the crew’s prideful grins evoked by the contented rhythm that comes with doing meaningful work, I was reminded of how important it is to provide opportunities for children and young adults to interact with their natural environment. On the way down from the mountain, one of the kids piped up, “When the forest is open I am going to bring my whole family up here for a hike to show them the trail that we have been working on!”

Photos by Dakota Wagner and Esmé Cadiente

National Forest Foundation