Two crews from the Student Conservation Association (SCA) are hard at work this summer repairing and maintaining the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCNST) within the Allegheny National Forest (ANF).
Kathy Mohney, public affairs officer for the ANF, said, "The work that is accomplished by SCA every year as part of the agreement with the ANF is amazing, as well as the benefits to the kids that come here as part of the crew. The SCA's mission is creating conservation leaders and land stewards, building leaders, and motivating the kids that are a part of the program, many between the ages of 15 and 18."
The SCA began in 1955 as a thesis paper by a Vassar College student who suggested a student conservation organization to help build trails in national forests and state parks.
In 1961, the SCA partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, and they've never looked back.
Jeff Glenn, SCA program manager for ANF projects, said there are two intern crews, one based in Kane and one in Marienville. A third crew composed of high school students is camped along Salmon Creek for a month.
He added, "The kids we get are exceptional. Of all the things they could do over the summer, they chose to serve. They hand over their cell phones, and they are unplugged. They're so atypical. They also get an amazing experience."
He noted that of the ten high school students, not one is from Pennsylvania. "They're having an amazing time, not just in the woods, but experiencing the local communities and cultures," Glenn said.
He explained, "The intern crews are college students or graduates, 20 to 30 years old and they work on three- and six-month projects. All their living expenses are paid, and the receive a stipend and educational scholarships. They also receive Forest Service training including first aid and CPR."
The crews work from the trailhead in Henry's Mills north to Willow Bay on the Allegheny Reservoir, and from the NCNST trailhead south to Marienville. Both portions of the trail are approximately 50 miles long.
Glenn said, "At the end of last season and the first of this season we did a very detailed trail inventory, documenting every human-made feature or those that need to be added. The crews are working on everything, from new construction to maintenance. They hike the tools and materials in over uneven terrain, build bridges, drainage devices, staircases and retaining walls with only primitive tools like crosscut saws and axes."
The crews often use material found at or near the sites, which gives the trail a more natural appearance and reduces the need for multiple trips to haul material from elsewhere.
Asked about the possibility of injuries, Glenn replied, "The SCA has a strong safety ethic, and along with the Forest Service's impeccable safety record we have never had a serious injury."
Glenn said he has strong feelings about the quality of the work performed by the SCA, emphasizing, "They do hands-down, top-notch work you couldn't afford to pay a contractor to do."
"I would like to highlight the skill of the past year's work at Rimrock, the most popular site in the forest. Three crews moved over 20 tons of rock down 75 feet with a zip line, using a hand-operated crane to control the descent."
"The stone and timberworking skills we teach are lost arts," he added. "The SCA does work that most federal agencies, including the ANF, do not have the time, training or budget to do themselves. We hire and train our leaders and crew members exceptionally well, and the work we do proves that."
Another example of the outstanding work is a stone staircase on the trail leading to a fishing hole on Sugar Run near Sugar Bay. He said Matt Luvison of Youngsville donated two truckloads of cut stone for the project, charging only the labor to deliver it.
Glenn said, "I've heard a lot of locals say they are amazed and thankful." He noted that a number of people hiking or fishing had fallen down the hill before the staircase was built. He also acknowledged the generosity of Dyne Excavating in Kane for its assistance on projects.
In addition to work on the trailheads, he said a lot of work is done in remote areas in the back country, several miles into the woods. Much of the work involves clearing trail corridors and timber blow downs from the previous winters,
Glenn is employed by the SCA, not the federal government. He has been the program manager on the ANF since 2010, and from 2006 to 2010 he was SCA crew leader working all over the United States. He said, "It is very much mutually beneficial to the goals of the SCA and the Forest Service" teaching team work, team building, leadership skills and more to the students while completing work that needs to be done on national forests and national parks.
"The work that we have done in the past four years has changed not only the trails in the ANF, but it has also brought about an emphasis towards non-motorized recreation to the area," he said.
The program on the ANF has been funded by over $1 million from the Obama Administration's federal stimulus funds in 2009. Glenn said, "The taxpayers are getting their money's worth."
Beginning in mid-July, inner-city high school students from Pittsburgh who are employed by the SCA and working in public city spaces will come for weekends, primarily for a recreation experience. Glenn explained, "These youths have never been outside of the city. The main focus is an immersion in public lands, although they will do a half-day project placing bluebird nesting boxes."
The four-year project ends on Sept. 30, pending further funding that could extend the project.
The SCA mission states, "To build the next generation of conservation leaders and inspire lifelong stewardship of our environment and communities by engaging young people in hands-on service to the land."