NC Youth Conservation Corps learn life, forest skills through intense summer internship

August 9, 2018 | 

, Asheville Citizen Times

Lyra Aquino has picked up many skills in her three summers of back-breaking labor with the North Carolina Youth Conservation Corps.

The 19-year-old from Hillsborough can build a fence, clear a trail and swing a fire rake, a hazel hoe and a limb lopper like a pro. She can set up and break down camp without anyone knowing she’s been there.

But perhaps her greatest lessons have been perseverance and patience.

For about half the seven weeks each summer Aquino has spent as a trail crew member with the Conservation Trust for North Carolina’s NC Youth Conservation Corps, she and her crew have worked in the rain, as they did Aug. 2, their last day in the forest, in a relenting, pummeling downpour.

“You just have to snuggle up in your rain jacket, and deal with it,” Aquino said.

But in her third year as a trusted trail crew member with the program run by the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, Aquino said the rain, the heavy labor, Spartan living conditions and the rain and more rain is no deterrent. She plans to be back again next summer.

Aquino is part of a seven-member crew that spent the summer fixing, restoring and maintaining some of the most heavily used trails in the Pisgah National Forest, and among 36 young people who took to the outdoors with the NCYCC this summer.

CTNC started this program in 2013 with two summer crews and has since expanded to include weekend crews in the fall as well as summer, said the land trust’s spokeswoman, Mary Alice Holley.

The Pisgah Crew this summer is made up of 16-18-year-olds from diverse backgrounds across North Carolina. There is also a young adult chainsaw crew through North Carolina State Parks, who are 18-24 years old. Nearly 200 young people have taken part since the program’s start, Holley said.

The goal is to give youth a summer job while learning job and life skills, environmental stewardship, leadership, community service and personal responsibility.

Crews work a 40-hour week, camping for the duration, which means sleeping outdoors and cooking meals over a propane stove or fire. The pay is $10.15 an hour, which is Vermont’s minimum wage, since the North Carolina program partners with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, Holley said. North Carolina’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Participants don’t get to pick where they work, Holley said. They are placed based on the length of time they want to participate and their age. The criteria for joining a crew includes being a North Carolina resident between ages 16 and 24.

Aquino said she applied after hearing about the program through her mom’s friend and since she “had been interested in conservation for a while.”

In her first-year assignment, she rebuilt a fence originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s on the North Carolina Outer Banks.

“I wanted to be able to do something active over the summer. I like being outside, being in nature,” Aquino said. “It’s a great way to make new friends, and a great way to take a step back and clear your head and feel like you’re doing something productive.”

The summer trail work has had a profound meaning for Aquino, who said it sealed her decision to study sustainable development at Appalachian State University, where she starts this fall.

Trails in the hands of teenagers

Bryan Allison, 17, of Knightdale, worked this summer on the Pisgah crew in his second year with NCYCC. He got the idea from his older brother, who had worked on North Carolina crews and is now on a 10-month assignment with Americorps in Texas.

Allison, who is African-American, said he had only been camping twice before signing up with NCYCC. While he said outdoor activities are not the norm among his neighborhood friends, he is trying to encourage others to sign up for the pay, the chance to travel and to do something meaningful during the summer.

“If I wasn’t doing this, I’d probably be at home just sitting around,” Allison said.

He said it’s not all fun. The work is hard, using only hand tools to cut down tree limbs, remove berms and build steps. Carrying large boulders is also part of the job. And then there’s the long stretch away from home. But the job has perks.

“I learned to communicate better with people, basic trail maintenance, and I learned to cook a whole lot better on a propane stove. I make a pretty good bean burger,” he said.

The program also carries an educational component. Participants have an hour of outdoor education every day, and on weekends go to museums or hiking or attend ranger programs, said field director Greg Zickgraf.

Aquino said every night at camp they delve into deep topics, such as the AIDS crisis in Afghanistan.

The work the youth crews have done is essential to the maintenance of the forest’s immensely popular trails, said Jeff Owenby, recreation staff member with the U.S. Forest Service.

Pisgah National Forest covers more than a half-million acres of steep, densely wooded terrain, including the highest peaks in the East, and is constantly barraged by the biggest enemy to trails — water.

Along with the Nantahala National Forest, the two forests covers 1.1 million acres and are considered among the country’s busiest forests, drawing some 6 million visitors a year for recreation ranging from hunting and fishing to mountain biking, hiking and camping.

The Pisgah District alone, which includes Bent Creek and the Davidson River area, has some 380 miles of trail.

The crew tackled projects on about 10 miles of trails including Moore Cove, Andy Cove Nature Trail, Art Leob Trail in the Black Balsam area, North Slope Trail near the Davidson River Campground, and bridge repairs on the South Mills River.

“They did a lot of quality work. They brought energy and skill,” Owenby said. “The district is thrilled at the work they accomplished. It couldn’t have happened without them. Those trails are some of the most popular on the district and were on the top of our deferred maintenance list. When you have bridges that are missing railings, that’s serious.”

Allison, who is starting his senior year of high school, said he plans to study engineering in college. He also plans to return to the YCC crew next summer, and will continue to camp as a hobby.

“I like when hikers ask what it is we’re doing,” Allison said. “It always makes me happy when someone is interested in the work we’re doing on the trail where they walk. I definitely will look back at my work and say, ‘Yeah, I built that drainage.’”

Want to join the North Carolina Youth Conservation Corps?

Applications are now open for fall crews. To apply, visit

Read more about NCYCC’s work in the 2018 season