This story appears in the Spring 2015 edition of Our Big Backyard, a quarterly magazine about parks and nature. Read more stories, plan an outing with a field guide, and find out more about fun nature events and classes.
It’s a dry, crisp morning in the Sandy River Gorge. The forest is quiet, save for the occasional drumbeat of water droplets falling off Douglas firs, pushed by a breeze, headed for the forest floor.
In the distance, a diesel engine in low gear gets closer. Soon, the yellow Mt. Hood Community College bus, windows fogged, pulls into sight and into the gates at Metro’s Oxbow Regional Park.
On this January morning, nine teens are showing up for work, part of the Youth Ecology Corps, a workforce development partnership between Metro and Mt. Hood Community College.
The participants don’t look like your stereotypical treehugging natural area superheroes. For one, they’re working on or have recently completed their GEDs.
Second, the group includes people who haven't been exposed to nature much.
Andre Thomas is one of those people. Originally from the Phoenix area, Thomas hadn't spent much time outdoors. He came to the Youth Ecology Corps' parent program because he was looking for a job.
"I didn't go outdoors at all," Thomas said. "It was too hot."
For years, Metro has been trying to address the vexing question: How do you get people who aren't familiar with the outdoors to experience the parks and natural areas their community has voted to financially support?
One of the answers has come in the form of more than $134,000 to support partnerships that connect communities of color, low-income residents and other underserved communities with nature. The money pays for programs that break down barriers of unfamiliarity and fear by creating opportunities for outdoor recreation, career training and, well, curiosity building.
At Oxbow, Youth Ecology Corps members line around a picnic table near the Sandy River floodplain, and Metro natural resource technician Chris Hagel goes over the day’s plan.
On the table are two sets of plants: In one set, each plant is barren of leaves, just sticks, really. The other set has glossy leaves with sharp edges.
One of each set is an invasive species that will dominate the landscape if left unchecked. English holly, an invasive species, has an alternate leaf pattern, and thicker, sharper spines on the leaves.
Oregon grape, a native species and the state flower, has opposite leaves, and won’t sting quite as sharply if you brush against it. They look similar, but the holly needs to go, and the Oregon grape needs to flourish.
The corps members get in a line in the floodplain and march forth, pulling up weeds and saving the native species, learning how to manage the land and how to enjoy it.
"I figured this is good experience for a resume, and it's good to get outdoors and learn about it," said corps member Chase Logan. "I like that it's quiet, and if it's not quiet, it's not machine noise. It's serene. It's a nice place to go."
While it may not seem like that big of a deal to go for a walk in the woods, many Portland-area youths never have that opportunity. For them, nature can be an intimidating place, said Jackie Murphy, a career development manager at Self Enhancement, Inc.
She points to a project where middle school students in an SEI program visited the North Abbey Creek Natural Area near Forest Park. The plan was to teach the children how bees help pollinate plants.
But for many of the children, this was primed to be their first exposure to bees that didn't involve a stinger.
"They think bees will attack," Murphy said. "There are some misconceptions of what's out in the environment. It's just not something they see in their day-to-day neighborhood. They think, 'I don't like it because it's gross or nasty.'"
A lot of that, Murphy said, is simply because of lack of exposure. Residents without cars aren’t likely to explore Multnomah Falls, North Abbey or trails, she said.
But after the SEI program with Metro, students, by a wide margin, said they felt more comfortable in nature. About a third said they'd be interested in exploring careers tied to natural resources and the environment.
"In natural resource and environmental jobs, a low percentage of people of color are employed in those areas," Murphy said. "With this relationship with Metro, exposing kids early on, they're gaining interest, and we can connect their interest in an area they can explore and pursue into college and a career."
Back at Oxbow, the Youth Ecology Corps participants earn $10 an hour to pull invasive weeds from the park. They fanned out across the Sandy River floodplain, yanking Scotch broom and English ivy. It's a never-ending effort – Scotch broom seeds can remain viable in the soil for 80 years – but persistence pays off. Areas that were once blanketed with invasive Scotch broom are returning to their natural state.
As Hagel outlined the scope of the day's work, he also said Metro would be looking at hiring one or two Youth Ecology Corps members as an entry-level natural area worker.
The job would pay $12 an hour, Hagel said.
In the end, Metro and its partners are looking at the long-game, hoping to change outlooks, a few dozen families at a time.
"It helps build this pipeline of students who not only feel more comfortable in the environment and engaged in it, but their families will start interacting more with them in these natural resources Metro provides," Murphy said.