A teenager hunches over a cold fire pit, carefully adding wood shavings and bark to a small pile of kindling. It’s the first time she’s ever had to make a campfire. Colorful kayaks bob in the cold, grey ocean as nervous shouts and laughter mix with the high-pitched cries of a bald eagle soaring above.

A hoodie-clad figure scribbles notes on a soggy piece of paper under a drizzling sky, recording floatplane impacts to visitor solitude. Bags of trash and invasive weeds sit on a rocky beach while a crew of youth relaxes under the momentarily sunny sky.

While these scenes, and others like them, could be from an Outward Bound course or a week-long volunteer vacation, they’re from a remote wilderness in the Alaskan bush. Admiralty Island, a part of Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, has long been recognized as a special place. Alaska Native Tlingit have always treasured this remote area for its bountiful fish, deer, berries and other foods, and subsistence is still vital to the 450 community members of Angoon, the sole town on the island.

Admiralty Island is also renowned for its old-growth forest, salmon runs and healthy brown bear population: its Tlingit name, Kootznoowoo, translates as Fortress of the Bears, and refers to the 1,600 brown bears populating the million-acre island. With support from Angoon’s citizens, President Jimmy Carter designated Admiralty Island a National Monument in 1978. Congress reaffirmed the monument status in 1980 while also designating most of the island as the Kootznoowoo Wilderness Area to protect its wilderness character and subsistence opportunities.

its Tlingit name, Kootznoowoo, translates as Fortress of the Bears, and refers to the 1,600 brown bears populating the million-acre island.

In the 1970s, a Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) program employed Angoon youth to maintain trails, cabins and shelters on Admiralty Island, but the program ended with budget cuts in the 1980s. After several dormant decades, the Angoon Youth Conservation Corps was revitalized in 2015 with a renewed effort to employ rural youth 15-18 years of age. The “new” Angoon YCC has been successful, thanks to the collaboration of diverse partners. The U.S. Forest Service lines out projects, trains the youth and helps transport them to the field. The Chatham School District employs the youth and administers their payroll and work permits. MobilizeGreen employs the YCC Program Leaders who support and oversee the youth during the summer. Finally, the National Forest Foundation has raised critical YCC program funding for the past four years through its Alaska Forest Fund. In addition, the NFF has strongly advocated for employing Alaska Native youth through the YCC in its fundraising and communication efforts.

In 2015 and 2016, the Angoon YCC program employed crews of four youths with one leader. For the last three years, the program has expanded to employ six youths and two leaders. And in 2018, the YCC added the Assistant Crew Leader position, which provides two returning students the opportunity to develop their leadership skills, gives them more responsibility for reporting and planning trips, and increases their hourly pay. The Angoon YCC has been the first job most of the youth have ever had, not surprising in a rural area with few employment opportunities, and students have shared that they used their paychecks to help support their families.

The primary objectives for the program are conservation based: maintaining trails, cabins and shelters, cleaning up campsites and marine debris, and mapping and removing invasive species. The most rewarding accomplishments are more subtle. Over the last five seasons the teenagers on the crew have reported many firsts: the first time they’ve camped, hiked, or kayaked; the first time they have spent a week away from family; and the first time they got to experience places of cultural importance.

The expanded comfort zones and acquired skills have exceeded everyone’s expectations – most importantly those of the youth. “Out here in wilderness we’re all the same—it doesn’t matter how much money we have or no matter your background—you have to work together as a team … trying to make a difference,” reflected a 2015 YCC alum. On top of these new outdoor skills, the youth have also gained valuable professional skills like navigating the application and interview process and adhering to a work schedule while communicating with a supervisor and team members, more firsts for most of these teens.

As crew leaders with MobilizeGreen, we have been very grateful for the huge support from the community in Angoon. Numerous teachers and family members have shared with us the enormous growth they have seen in the youth, particularly in responsibility and work ethic. Throughout the season we share accomplishments of the crew on Facebook, and at the end of each season we celebrate with the community by hosting a potluck. During the potluck the crew shows off samples of marine debris they picked up over the season, they educate the community on the harms of plastics in the ocean, and the program leaders highlight each individual’s personal and collective growth throughout the season.

The positive change from the Angoon YCC program has been transformative for the youths and the community. “We've seen tremendous growth, improved attitude and effort from the students after being on the crew,” observed the Angoon school principal. The current plan is to develop a young adult internship program for those over 18 years old to continue connecting young people to meaningful local stewardship and to nurture future conservation leaders.

About the Author

Kiley Heth and Josh Orem have been leading the Angoon YCC program since 2017 and will be back for the 2020 season. For more information about the Angoon YCC program, contact Patrick Shannon, Director, Pacific Northwest Programs, at pshannon@nationalforests.org.

National Forest Foundation