Fingers trace the soil next to a fragile sprout shooting out of the ground. The sounds of migrating birds are cataloged in wildlife journals. Animal tracks tell silent stories as they interlace on the ground.
They're all moments in nature, and moments that will be captured soon as part of the new Youth Ecology Corps, a partnership between Metro and Mt. Hood Community College.
The corps is a new conservation initiative, aimed at providing paid work opportunities for youth to develop conservation skills and environmental literacy. Its launch is part of the roll-out of the Portland region's 2013 parks and natural areas property tax levy.
Since 1980, there's been a 50 percent reduction in the amount of undergraduate botany degrees, and a lack of teachers available to train new botanists. These trends reflect a larger culture of childhood disconnection from nature as the new norm.
Corps members will begin their training on April 23, beginning with orientation at YMCA Camp Collins and Oxbow Regional Park. The park is likely to be their anchor location for their sessions, though they will work at several Metro sites throughout their training.
The education will change to reflect the shifts in seasons, with the spring season focused on bird identification and botany, summer centered on wildlife tracking, fall converging on salmon spawning and mushrooms, and winter spotlighting geology and wilderness survival skills.
Through this intensive year, the members of corps members will get access to the natural environment they may have never known.
Officials from Metro and from Project YESS hope the Corps will create new interest in the outdoors. And they're starting with an audience unlikely to have experienced nature – at-risk youth, often from urban areas, who may never have spent much time in the great outdoors.
Dan Daly, a Metro naturalist and lead on the Youth Ecology Corps, said the Corps members may have missed important moments in connecting with nature because of cultural and financial restraints.
"They may have had no land base as young people, or family cultures of people that went outdoors. They don't have the resources to leave town and go camping and visit national parks and national forests. They didn't have these experiences," Daly said. "They didn't get to play and explore and be imaginative."
Michael Oliver, the youth conservation corps program coordinator for Project YESS described the factors that bring youth the program.
"When they enroll, they have left the traditional high school setting for a number of reasons," Oliver said.
One of the requirements for everyone who applies for Project YESS is that they need to acquire a GED. Another requirement is that all Project YESS participants come from families at or below the federal poverty line. For a family of four, that would be $27,724 per year.
"We like to say that program starts when the GED is done," Oliver said. The students are given mentorship, workforce training, skill building classes, and are steered toward either college or a career wage job.
The partnership between Project YESS and Youth Ecology Corps creates a tiered system of conservation opportunities for youth. Project YESS will continue to operate other youth conservation crews, but the Youth Ecology Corps will create crews that teach intermediate and advanced skills.
Not only will the crews learn about nature, they'll also work on habitat restoration, trail maintenance, invasive species removal and planting native vegetation. They'll also support larger projects, like side channel restoration to help spawning salmon. Crew members will be paid $10 an hour.
"It expands our program to create a higher level position," Oliver said. The program will have higher wages, higher expectations, and will seek out those who have genuine interest and aptitude.
Daly said there's a gap of training for current youth conservation opportunities.
"We are striving to go beyond conservation 101, there is a gap between entry level conservation work and full time year round salary," Daly said. "We are trying to provide an intermediate step."
Daly described the intermediate to advanced skills learned as a marketable experience that will enable the Youth Ecology Corps graduates to pursue full time conservation employment.
John Sheehan, a Metro parks and regional manager, said Project YESS had a unique combination of factors that led it to win a competitive bid for the Metro partnership.
"They rose to the top due to a combination of things, experience with youth conservation crews, a strong connection with continuing education," he said.
One of the most important factors was Project YESS' longstanding program. The Youth Employability Support Services, established in 1980, has been running work crews for 15 years.
For Daly, the most important thing is an opportunity to create a culture of connection, stewardship and management.
"Just being outdoors, we want to hook them so that they fall hopelessly in love with nature," Daly said.