By Clare Duffy

The Bulletin

Rebekah Benson hoisted a bucket the size of her torso onto her chest and secured the straps around her shoulders. She deliberately walked along the perimeter of the dirt patch, cranking the bucket’s handle and spraying a stream of yarrow seed as several girls followed, sweeping the seeds into the soil with tree branches.

Benson, a senior at Mountain View High School, along with 13 other young women were working on a years-old restoration project Tuesday to revegetate the area surrounding Soda Creek, near Sparks Lake. This project is just one part of the Young Women’s Natural Resources Career Camp, an annual program put on by local nonprofit Discover Your Forest and the Deschutes National Forest. The program aims to expose high school age girls from across Central Oregon to career options in the natural resources field through a three-day camp and extended mentorship program.

“Being out here and experiencing new things and hearing from women in the field, it makes it a lot easier to connect and understand the opportunities out there,” Mattaya Lepez, a camper and recent graduate of Redmond High School, said.

Only eight hours into the overnight camp, the campers had already done an identification exercise with a wildlife biologist, and were looking forward to cooking over a campfire Tuesday night. During the three days, participants will work on several forest restoration projects and hear from female professionals in a variety of natural resources careers, from fishery to fire to conservation education, about their experiences and career paths.

Discover Your Forest Education Program Director Karen Gentry, who coordinates the camp, said the girls are encouraged to keep up a mentor relationship with the professionals even after the camp ends. And as the camp enters its third year, Gentry, who says her own natural resources career developed thanks to the help of several mentors, is already seeing the positive effects of these relationships.

“We are hoping to bring more young women into the natural resources field,” Gentry said. “We’re seeing success in that these girls are coming back to us doing internships or working with government land management agencies. They’re looking to us for help in getting started in the field.”

Currently, women make up 25 percent of the Oregon Department of Forestry’s employees and 32 percent of its permanent employees, according to the department. State Forestry is just one of the many agencies that make up the natural resources field, but Gentry said she’s sees the field moving toward a more equal gender balance and thinks the camp is helping.

The program is free, and applicants selected for the camp come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences with the outdoors and have diverse future aspirations, only some of which include attending college prior to starting a career.

But there is one thing they all have in common: a love of the outdoors.

Madras High School senior Thyreicia Simtustus says her appreciation for the outdoors developed through a recent experience working as a ranch hand, but she’s interested in exploring fisheries management.

Several of the campers have also participated in the Youth Conservation Corps, a paid seasonal position with the U.S. Forest Service that made them excited to head back outside this summer.

“I’m now seeing fire as a new career option,” Ridgeview senior Madison Hill, who worked with the corps last summer, said. “All during the school year I just wanted to get back outside, so I’m excited to be in this camp.”

The idea, Gentry says, is to show the wide range of options for young women interested in forest services.

“We want to be very inclusive,” she said. “Not everyone has the option or desire to go to college, so we’re giving a variety of different pathway options, scholarships, internships and different ways that these girls can engage in the natural resources field.”

And while the future seemed far off to the girls, who were focused on their tasks in the moment, the natural resources veterans surrounding them seemed to sense their impact.

“I wish that I would have had something like this,” said Jennifer Mickelson, the Ochoco National Forest fisheries biologist who was leading the afternoon’s exercise. “It’s a great feeling to empower women to work in natural resources, to show them that they can be outdoors and do this work.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2108;