Before they descended the short trail to Benham Falls lookout last week, five teens rubbed bug spray onto their skin, comparing mosquito bites from days prior. As a part of the Central Oregon Youth Conservation Corps, 93 local teens are spending their summer working on public lands. The team at Benham Falls last week, known as the Lima Crew, were used to the bug bites by Thursday, their last day of work for the week.

Central Oregon youth applied for the Conservation Corps in the spring. The nonprofit Heart of Oregon Corps puts on the program, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council.

Crew members are paid for 36 hours of work each week; about half the funds come from the Forest Service and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the rest from private funds. Although they stay with the their same crew and leader for the duration of the summer, crews rotate to different spots usually every few days, completing a variety of projects. Sometimes work includes gathering fuel in forested areas or pulling noxious weeds, while other times the work may be on structures.

At Benham Falls last week, the Lima Crew sanded and refinished railings at trail lookout points. The point of the work is to demonstrate to teens what some Forest Service workers do and what it takes to keep up public lands. But along the way, the members are learning more; they’re understanding the environment around them and what they can do to help preserve it.

“We want them to see where they live and build an appreciation for that,” said Yancy Wilkenfeldt, program coordinator for Central Oregon Youth Conservation Corps, while on site with the Lima Crew last week.

Lima Crew is made up of teens from Redmond and Terrebonne who mostly stay in the Deschutes National Forest, but depending where the members are from, other crews work in the Ochoco National Forest or Crooked River National Grassland. Katherine Lepez, 16, will be a senior at Ridgeview High School next year. She is looking forward to a future in Forest Service work after attending college.

“I thought this would be a great way to get a taste,” she said.

Katherine said she’s had a lot of experience outdoors; her family is close and going outside together is something they do often.

Baillie Powell, 18, recently graduated from Ridgeview High School. She plans to study psychology at Central Oregon Community College in the fall, but she was interested in working for the Conservation Corps for the summer.

Back at the truck getting ready for the day, the teens helped their crew leader, Dave Frantz, 67, of Bend, stir the wood lacquer in one of two large buckets. It was clear over the past few days Frantz had shown them exactly what to do, and they felt comfortable with the tasks.

As Frantz poured some of the lacquer into the second bucket, he became confident, letting the liquid run faster.

“Easy, Dave!” said Evan Bridges, 17, teasing their teacher. The rest of the teens laughed and also ribbed Frantz, who didn’t spill a drop.

After arriving at the railing they were repairing, crew members set up an A-frame sign stating they’re working for the Conservation Corps. In their matching gray long-sleeve shirts and hard hats, trail-runners and bikers become curious about what they’re doing. Wilkenfeldt said the sign is a great way to let the community in on what they’re working on and why.

During the work, Frantz said, he talks to the teens about the flora and fauna around them, and on breaks will take them off to show them different scenery around the work sites. Frantz retired from the Forest Service in December 2014, so his knowledge comes in handy.

Frantz said it’s not about the corps members remembering everything he tells them about the plants and animals — their curiosity is what matters. And from the beginning, to ensure a healthy work environment, he explained to the group of five that everyone works at their own pace.

Last week at Benham Falls, it was clear the corps members had already become a team.

Joe Welke, Deschutes National Forest volunteer coordinator, also works in the trails program. Welke helped supervise the Lima Crew at Benham Falls last week and worked alongside the teens, brush in hand.

“We try and find projects that a group of kids can focus their energies on and is meaningful,” Welke said. “I try and give them context for each project.”

That means encouraging the teens to see the bigger picture of the work they’re doing, he said, and taking note of the natural life around them. While the crew was staining the wood, a bird swooped above the falls in the dewy morning air. Welke and Frantz debated with crew members whether it might have been an osprey.

But the knowledge the crew members ask Frantz to share, he said, goes beyond what’s happening in the forest. They want to connect with him on a personal level as well.

“They ask me, ‘What’s your favorite song from the ’60s?’” said Frantz, laughing. “I like the thought and energy of youth. … I like their music. … They need to have an opportunity to shine.”

Wilkenfeldt agreed, admiring the corps members’ dedication even throughout not-so-fun tasks during the recent heat wave. Another week, for example, the Lima Crew piled slash, or wildfire fuel, off of Burgess Road.

Evan, who will be a senior at Redmond High School next year, said after the past few weeks, he’s thinking Forest Service work might be something he’ll pursue. Brandon Hunt, 17, graduated from Redmond Proficiency Academy in the spring and will attend Montana Tech in the fall. Brandon isn’t planning to do forest work after college but it’s something that he’s enjoying for the summer.

The fifth member in the crew, Nate Jarvis, 18, will be a senior at Redmond High School next year. Last summer, he heard about the program but didn’t get to apply in time, so this year he was excited to get to participate; he said he may be interested in working for the Forest Service in the future.

Looking around, Nate admired his workspace.

“It’s beautiful out here.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, kfisicaro@bendbulletin.com

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