To the right, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR) maintenance staff prep holes with a mini excavator, while the park resource ranger, Gretchen Galbraith, moves from tree to tree, cutting twine and freeing up hemp-bound root balls.
Soon, Gretchen joins the crew. On bent knees, she explains the importance of breaking up a tree’s root ball before planting. Doing so encourages root growth in the surrounding soil. If you don’t break the root ball up, the plant could continue to be root-bound, meaning that the roots will circle each other, eventually asphyxiating the plant.
Madison and her crew watch Gretchen’s technique and then put the lesson into practice. As they work, Gretchen explains the importance of the project. This area near the park campground is popular. Unfortunately, rainwater passes down the open slope below the parking lot and collects above the beach on the footpath. The runoff is causing erosion, impeding accessibility, and damaging the footpath to the beach.
Tree planting is the solution. Trees will slow water accumulation and absorb runoff, thereby reducing erosion, improving accessibility, and making maintenance more sustainable.
The crew tamps the soil around the tree and moves on to the next one. They’ve got the hang of it. For a moment, Madison speaks with Michael Plish, the assistant park manager at Gifford Pinchot, while keeping a watchful eye on her crew. After their talk, Michael lends a hand.
When they finish packing the soil on the last tree, they take a water break in the shade. Cotton-ball clouds hang over shining Pinchot Lake. A family plays in the shallows. Kids’ cheers echo over a soft flutter of leaves.
The Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps (PAOC), a youth training and employment program of DCNR, offers young people work experience, job training, and educational opportunities. There are three components for different age groups.
Madison and her crew are a part of the six-week summer program for youth ages 15-18. In addition, there is a nine-month cultural resource crew and a nine-month program for young adults ages 18 – 25. The crew member and leader jobs are paid positions and available across the state each spring.
Madison, who goes by Maddie, is graduating from York College in December as an education major with a science concentration. She found her job as a youth crew leader by chance, simply searching for summer jobs on Indeed. She believes a lot of kids probably haven’t heard about these parks, but she says, “they need to know about this program. It’s being outside all summer – in the woods, in nature, and making a difference.”
She’s enthusiastic about her job and proud of her training. She’s certain that her experience with the PAOC will have an “immense” impact on her teaching. “Do you want to see our manual?” She asks before pulling out a white Student Conservation Association (SCA) booklet. She highlights a few of the activities she has already done and describes the structure of the PAOC program as project-based learning, which she loves.
What draws her to a job outdoors? “It makes me feel grounded,” she responds, “I love being outside. I think it is a great environment for the kids and leaders to work in. There is so much room to be creative and express your ideas. Especially, when we are out doing trail maintenance. There is a lot of problem-solving and working together.”
Maddie smiles while recalling an experience she had the day before. The crew was doing trail maintenance and there was a lot of foot traffic. “It was amazing,” she said, “repeatedly people stopped to say thank you to us.” She made sure to call her crew’s attention to it. “I asked them ‘How does that make you guys feel?’ I wanted them to reflect on how they can see their impact and how their actions benefit their community.”
The biggest highlight of her experience so far has been getting to know a community of people drawn to the outdoors. She feels comfortable working with DCNR staff “who are so caring, open-minded, and always willing to help,” she says.
Maddie has a two-week training program with other youth crew leaders under her belt, but her crew started working only a few days ago. Crew member Malachi Lee recently graduated from York Suburban and has plans to pursue a career as an electrician. Crew member Evan Hess is a soccer player at York Tech and will be applying for colleges soon. Both say they feel good about the projects they’ve done as PAOC crew members so far and that they’re enjoying working outdoors. Crew member Mehkil Daniels of the York Suburban Class of 2023 is out that day and has a Kinsley Construction internship lined up for after the program.
For Malachi and Evan, family was influential in helping them find this opportunity. Evan says his brother passed through the program and is now working for DCNR. He’s considering following in his footsteps. Malachi adds that his mom had heard about the program and thought it would be a great summer job for him.
After they complete the projects scheduled for Gifford Pinchot State Park, Evan, Malachi, Mehkil, and Maddie will be on their way to Codorus State Park for a few weeks.
Most of the crew’s work this summer will be on state park and forest land. They’ll receive workforce development training and hands-on job skills, as well as have learning opportunities in resource management, environmental issues and topics, and recreation skills.
The PAOC is part of a historic chain of opportunities. Its roots lie in the Civilian Conservation Corps which helped revitalize Pennsylvania and America during the mid-20th century. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was called the PCC, the Pennsylvania Conservation Corp.
“It’s been around and rebranded a couple of times,” Jennifer Park, the park operations manager at Gifford Pinchot, says, “It helps recruit people to become interested and invested in conservationism and natural resource management. It gets people into these career tracks. We need good folks.”
Michael Plish is a perfect example of how the PAOC serves as a springboard to employment in DCNR and a professional recruitment tool. Out of college, Michael was deciding on what he wanted to do when a professor made an opportune recommendation to look into the PAOC. Soon Michael was a crew member in the young adult program.
The outcome is the only review needed. The next season, Michael was a leader in the youth program. The next after that, he was a leader of a young adult crew. Now, he’s a DCNR staff member.
Michael is certain that his experience with the PAOC led him to his career in DCNR. “It gives you a broad view of the career paths in DCNR. I didn’t know a lot about the career opportunities until I started working with the Outdoor Corps and talking with these different people – the rangers, managers, maintenance staff, and educators. It gives you a big window into what could be and what you could be interested in,” he says.
A highlight of Michael’s time in the PAOC was working on high-profile projects, such as building Adirondack shelters for campers at Laurel Hill State Park. “We were part of the whole process. We cut down these mature red pine plantations that CCC corps members had planted in the 1930s. Then, we ran them through the mill, cut them to the sizes, and built shelters for campers. It was a continuation of a legacy, from the CCC crews who planted them back in the 1930s to us.”
Each PAOC project is tied to an educational experience and focuses on highlighting the purpose and importance of what the crew is doing. “We try to find meaningful projects for the crews. We look at what’s going to have the most impact and what they’ll be able to come back and see,” Jennifer mentions.
If the crews are rehabilitating an area for native plants, park staff teach them about the importance and benefit of native plants for local wildlife and ecosystems. When they are doing trail maintenance, “We’ll emphasize how it’s our most used trail – coming from the campground and going around the lake – and how the crew’s work is making the trail more sustainable, more enjoyable. We want them to be able to say that my work today will have a lasting effect on the community,” Jennifer says.
The PA Outdoor Corps is about more than professional development, though. It offers a range of recreational experiences, too.
Jennifer remembers that the coolest thing a crew member had ever said to her dealt with the awe of seeing a star-studded sky for the first time. Other crew members have excitedly told her about their first time staying in a cabin and making pancakes in the morning.
“They are just in wonderment and are like ‘I want to come back here. I never really wanted to go to parks before, but this experience has changed how I feel about the outdoors,’” she says.
The Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation advocates to sustain and enhance Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests and has been a supporter of the Corps program, advocating and raising funds on its behalf. The trees being planted during the visit to Gifford Pinchot are part of a larger project to make the beach accessible to more visitors.
“Ensuring a place and an experience for everyone in the outdoors is one of the guiding principles at the Foundation,’ says Marci Mowery, President. “With support from the York County Community Foundation’s Memorial Health Fund, Lawrence L and Julia Z Hoverter Charitable Foundation, and private donations projects such as the beach accessibility project become reality. For this project, we appreciate that we were able to work with corps members for needed tree plantings.”
For more information on the PA Outdoor Corps and how to apply for next season click here!
Brian Swift is the Public Engagement Coordinator at the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests foundation. Subscribe to our weekly e-blast to stay up to date on News, Events, and Blog posts!