They spent the first few weeks setting fires.
“Our house smelled like we were a bunch of chimney smokers,” Americorps team leader Angela Young says. “We had to keep our clothes outside. But that’s over now. Now we just have ticks.”
Young is one of 12 volunteers with the Americorps National Civilian Community Corps program that spent the spring at the Whetstone Creek Conservation Area near Williamsburg. The group worked under the supervision of the Missouri Department of Conservation to carry out projects geared towards prairie restoration.
Young says they spent the first three or four weeks conducting controlled burns, then removed miles of fence and invasive plant species such as honeysuckle, garlic mustard, and autumn olive—a shrub that can grow up to 20 feet tall.
“I think it’s kind of pretty, but it’s invasive so we cut it down,” Young says.
The volunteers hail from all over the country, and all but one are between the ages of 22 and 24. Most of the young men and women recently graduated from college. They moved into a bunkhouse on the 5,147-acre conservation area in mid-March and were scheduled to leave in early May.
John George is a natural history biologist with the Department of Conservation in Columbia and has supervised Americorps NCCC groups for five of the last six years that they’ve worked for the Department. George says their contribution is invaluable.
“Their focused labor helps us get more done than what we could do,” he says. “MDC employees have several areas of responsibility. With the volunteers, a lot of effort can be focused on specific tasks.”
The volunteers earn a living allowance of approximately $4,000 for the 10 months of service, and the host project usually provides room and board. George says that’s a bargain.
“It probably cost us $3,000–$5,000,” he says. “If I had to contract for the types of things they’re doing for us, I’d be looking at $20,000–$30,000 plus to do the kinds of work they’re doing.”
The property that is now Whetstone Creek Conservation Area was used as a cattle ranch before 1976, when the Department of Conservation bought it. Historically, the area was home to tallgrass prairie, savanna and woodlands. The absence of naturally occurring wildfires in recent years has made it a haven for invasive species that keep native vegetation from thriving, and much of the volunteers’ work has been aimed at restoring the property to its natural cover.
Referring to her notes, Young says her group had built more than eight miles of fire lines, planted roughly 100 trees, burned more than 1,400 acres, removed more than four miles of old fence, built a mile of trail and stained eight picnic tables and a foot bridge.
That’s a lot of work, but Young says it was worth it to spend the springtime in Missouri. “It’s absolutely perfect,” she says. “I guess springtime anywhere is nice but it’s really nice to be here in Missouri with all of the wildflowers and the prairie.”
The youngest volunteer in the group is Amanda Chouinard from Londonderry, New Hampshire. She graduated from high school last year and says she wasn’t ready to go to college right away. “I decided that I wanted to do a year of service in between high school and college, so I joined Americorps,” she says.
Chouinard says she enjoyed working at Whetstone Creek because it meant working outdoors and because every day was something new. She says the controlled burns were her favorite.
The controlled burns are meant to eliminate unhealthy ground cover and allow the prairie grasses and wildflowers to regenerate in full sunlight. Chouinard says she was amazed by how quickly the vegetation returned.
“It’s like super green,” she says. “It was green maybe a week after we burned it. I wasn’t expecting that at all. It’s amazing to see how everything blossoms up now that light can actually get to the surface.”
Another volunteer, 24-year-old Molly Sullivan, says she enjoyed the relative seclusion of the Whetstone Creek assignment. “Everything around us is really beautiful,” she says. “There’s no city lights out here. I’ve never lived in such a remote area.”
Whetstone Creek is a popular location for small game hunting and fishing, and it is home to an abundance of wildlife including rabbits, turtles, wild turkey and deer. Volunteers encountered other wildlife as well.
“We’ve seen more snakes than we would like,” Sullivan says.
For team leader Young, this is her second year through the program and the second time she has worked at Whetstone Creek. “I obviously had a great time last year,” she says. “John George is an amazing sponsor, and he’s been great to work with.”
When Young talks about her time at Whetstone Creek, she sounds like she’s describing summer camp. She says an after work fitness routine is a part of the Americorps program, and that meant running a few miles through the conservation area three times a week. Sometimes they played soccer or ultimate football.
“Last week we played capture the flag,” she says. “We all ran through prairie grass so we all have cuts on our legs.”
The volunteers spent most of their time outdoors, doing work that could be physically demanding. Young says she spent the day with an herbicide spray tank on her back. “They’re super heavy,” she says. “I think they’re between 30 and 45 pounds when they’re full. But you know, we’re getting stronger.”
Young is originally from Georgetown, Texas. In 2008, she graduated from William and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. She earned a degree in politics with a concentration in poverty and human capability. She isn’t sure what she’ll do next.
“We finish July 22, and then I’m looking for work in the non-profit field in the Denver area because that’s where we’re stationed,” she says.
The group was scheduled to end their Department of Conservation assignment on May 6, but Young says she didn’t think the group was ready to go. “We’ve really enjoyed our time here. I think everyone would really like to stay,” she says.
Chouinard says she had enjoyed her time at Whetstone Creek as well. “It’s just been a great experience,” she says. “I’ve loved being outside and being with good people.”
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