We look to the youth of today for tomorrow’s conservation stewards and leaders. Our National Forests and Grasslands nurture youth’s connection with nature and their understanding of natural resources. These places also provide opportunities for conservation service and employment to ensure the next generation is able to care for these public lands. 

This summer, a Youth Conservation Corps project brought eight youth and two crew leaders from the United Keetoowah Band (UKB) of Cherokee Indians (Oklahoma) to the hot and humid forests of North Georgia to spend their days working on conservation projects located across the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.

The Keetoowah (Kituwah) People originally lived in the southeastern part of the present-day United States, on lands forming present-day Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.  

Many tribal members live their entire lives in Oklahoma without ever having the opportunity to set foot where their ancestors lived for thousands of years.

In an effort to bring UKB youth to the southeast and establish a physical, emotional, and spiritual connection, the UKB Historic Preservation Program worked with the National Forest Foundation – through generous support from REI - and the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest to bring these youth crews to Georgia and employ them in meaningful forest work.  

The overall goal of this project was to connect UKB youth to their aboriginal homelands, while providing them with valuable work opportunities and experience with the U.S. Forest Service. This program provided a wide range of work experiences and encouraged an interest in natural resources management. As Katlyn Tyon, one of the participants stated, “It was hard work, but important to take care of the natural world.” 

YCC participants worked on a variety of projects, including one week on the Chattooga River Ranger District, where the crew worked with the Forest Archaeologist, James Wettstaed, digging in plots, surveying and recording their findings. Despite the typically hot Georgia summer weather, every member of the crew mentioned that they really appreciated the archaeology work that they got to do.  

Tim Pigeon, a recent Cave Springs high school graduate said that he enjoyed “finding artifacts and gaining an appreciation of the archaeologic work - including the technical aspects-- and making a connection to the culture.”  

Working with the Forest Service, and other partners like Trout Unlimited and the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, the YCC crews received training and completed a number of diverse conservation activities including archeology, trail stewardship and stream habitat improvement projects. Staying on the campus of Young Harris College, their visit to the southeast also provided a glimpse of college life.   

“I found the big rocks and even the color of the soil interesting and different from Oklahoma.”

-UKB youth participant

The staff of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest coordinated the work effort and will benefit from a strengthened relationship with the UKB. The Forest Service holds a responsibility to protect and steward former tribal lands located across the Forest.

With dreams of being teachers, engineers, working in the health field, and yes, there were even some potential foresters in the mix, these youth were provided a unique opportunity that may have sparked some excitement about their culture and made a stronger connection to their heritage. They had the opportunity to find out a little about themselves in the process – making an important connection to those that called this place home many years ago.  

Engaging youth is critical to the long-term health of our National Forests and Grasslands. Through the UKB Youth Conservation Corps project, these young people have gained a deeper appreciation of their role in the stewardship of natural resources. This program also gave them the opportunity to obtain meaningful work experience, develop practical, personal and professional skills, and learn about—and love—our Nation’s forests and grasslands. They also gained experience and a better understanding of the natural world and its broader connections, while receiving the tools and experience needed to care for these treasured landscapes.

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This project was made possible through REI's $1 million partnership with the National Forest Foundation in 2017. Click here to learn more about the project and partnership.

National Forest Foundation