As the sun sets behind the nearby mountains and the stars begin to shine, a campfire warms a weary crew from UW's Wyoming Conservation Corps (WCC). Nearby, the East Sage Hen Creek meanders its way through the valley. Once this riparian ecosystem fed and sheltered a diverse wildlife community that included birds, beavers, and cold-water fish. Now years of livestock grazing have damaged the willow community that once shaded the creek. Fish populations are dwindling, and beavers are locally extinct.
Early in the morning, ambassadors from Devon Energy Corporation and field staff from the Bureau of Land Management's Lander Field Office join the WCC crew on-site. Working together, they haul heavy logs from nearby trucks and nail them into a buck-and-rail livestock exclosure. As the fence nears completion, clouds gather for an evening symphony of thunder, lightning, and rain—an unfolding scene that Tim Sowecke (JD/MA '14), WCC's senior project coordinator, watches with deep satisfaction.
"It's hard to convey the gratification that comes from sitting on a tailgate at the end of an exhausting day, appreciating the line of fence you've just put in, and watching as a purple, lightning-laced sky comes out of the mountains and onto the range," Sowecke says. "It's moments like those when it feels like Wyoming is tipping its hat to your efforts."
The BLM, which manages the East Sage Hen Creek riparian zone, hopes that the new exclosure will protect the stream from further disturbance by grazing animals. Once the willows are replenished, beaver may repopulate the area or be reintroduced. Cold-water fish will benefit from increased shade and favorable deep-water habitats formed by beaver dams.
When the field office designated the riparian restoration as a high-priority, Devon Energy approached them about partnering on a fence-building project. At Devon's suggestion, Curtis Bryan (BS '02), lead range management specialist, turned to the WCC, an outreach program of the University of Wyoming's Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources. His office had partnered with the WCC on a number of past projects, including fence removal, illegal campsite cleanup, and the laying of irrigation pipe.
BLM staff had been impressed by the skill and work ethic of past WCC crews, and the 2011 group was no exception. "They arrived ready to work and were able to take minimal direction and run with the project," Bryan says. "We had a pretty intense fencing project for them with some significant hurdles to overcome. They all worked very hard to help us."
The government isn't the only party that benefitted from this partnership. The student volunteers on the WCC crew got a firsthand look at how energy companies work alongside land managers to preserve the environment. "These kids get a lot of exposure to different industries and public land users, helping to prepare them for careers within this state," Bryan says.
Nick Agopian (JD '07), a senior government and regulatory affairs specialist for Devon Energy, spent the day sweating, hammering and hauling logs with the students. When it comes to the WCC, Agopian has a somewhat unique perspective. He helped found the organization during his law school days at UW and maintains close ties with the group while working for one of its industry partners.
"The Wyoming Conservation Corps has grown tremendously over the past five years," Agopian says. "It's personally rewarding to see that the program has true staying power due to the continued support of Wyoming's public land managers."
Over the past five years, Devon Energy has provided funding and materials for a number of WCC projects on Wyoming's public lands. In 2010, the groups teamed up to construct a wildlife exclosure in the Robber's Gulch area north of Baggs, Wyo. Devon Energy has also provided educational opportunities for WCC crews, including a two-day fence training course, and has donated vehicles and other equipment to the organization.
"We are proud of our established partnership with the Wyoming Conservation Corps and will continue to seek opportunities to collaborate with them," Agopian says. "The partnership has proved to be a wonderful opportunity to help provide additional resources for the BLM while providing WCC students with an introduction to responsible energy development on Wyoming's public lands."
The restoration of East Sage Hen Creek is a good example of the "win-win-win" outcomes the WCC was created to foster, says Kendall Peacock, the program's assistant director.
Founded in 2006, the WCC continues the civil service tradition of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s and Youth Conservation Corps of the 1970s. Each eight-student crew undertakes six field projects over a 12-week summer season. By mid-August 2011, WCC crews will have completed 138 projects totaling 129,000 hours of service on Wyoming's public lands. Participants have worked alongside 29 government, corporate, nonprofit, and university partners.
The WCC offers 450 to 900 hour service contracts that start in the classroom and continue into the field. Crew members receive both living stipends and AmeriCorps Education Awards for their services. However, it's not the money that attracts applicants from across the country, Peacock says, but the opportunity to gain real-life experience in the environment and natural resources fields. Participants earn free upper-division college credit and receive extensive training in leadership, conservation ethics, equipment safety, and wilderness first aid.
The program's interdisciplinary flavor unites students and partners from a variety of backgrounds. "One of WCC's values that we try to embed into our program is a balanced perspective," Peacock says. "We do this by working on projects that touch all areas of natural resources: wildlife, recreation, grazing, timber management, water, and energy. Every one of our projects and partnerships helps develop diverse, hands-on natural resource and environmental management experiences for our students.
"Our crew members aren't just from the natural sciences, either," she adds. "Some are students majoring in rangeland ecology, music, religious studies, math, and other disciplines."
“It's moments like those when it feels like Wyoming is tipping its hat to your efforts." ”- Tim Sowecke
No matter their background, the WCC provides crew members with career-enhancing opportunities to work alongside its government and industry partners.
In 2011, Encana Corporation (Encana), a natural gas producer, agreed to sponsor a fence building project on public lands along the North Platte River. During the planning stages, Randy Teeuwen, Encana community relations advisor, approached Indy Burke, director of UW's environment and natural resources programs, for guidance. Burke thought the WCC would be a perfect fit, as did Tim Sowecke.
Their enthusiasm soon proved well-deserved. In May, WCC crews constructed two miles of wildlife-friendly fence that excludes grazing cattle from the sensitive riparian environment but allows for easy migration of deer and elk. Throughout the 10-day project, staff from the BLM's Casper Field Office instructed students on fence construction and riparian management practices.
"Everyone associated with WCC has been superb," Teeuwen says. "Projects are well organized, and as an industry partner, we were confident that WCC would offer students real, on-the-ground experiences along with a meaningful and personal understanding of the environment around them."
WCC participants also gain valuable experience working closely with nonprofit organizations. In May 2011, a crew traveled to Big Piney, Wyo., to construct fences, boardwalks, and a bridge along the Lander Trail, a section of the California National Historic Trail. The improvements are part of a new historical park slated to open in 2012.
"I was very impressed with the WCC," says Clint Gilchrist, president of Sublette County Historical Society. "The crew members were dedicated workers even with bad weather conditions." He adds that the group attracted valuable press attention, which benefited both the Pinedale nonprofit and the WCC. "We could have gotten the job done other ways, but it would not have been so rewarding," he says.
A week later, WCC crews traveled to northwest Wyoming to team up with a new nonprofit partner, the Nature Conservancy. Participants who had obtained their S-212 chainsaw certification put their new skills to use cutting juniper and other cone-bearing trees that had encroached into aspen stands and riparian areas in the Grass Creek drainage. The WCC crew also helped to lead a volunteer day in which 50 Nature Conservancy supporters and staff members took to the field to build fences, repair roads, and install small-mammal escape ramps on water tanks.
"At the end of the day, the volunteers could not have been more positive about their experiences with the WCC crew members," says Katherine Thompson, northwest Wyoming program director for the Nature Conservancy. "The day was a success, and the WCC crew deserves a large part of the credit for that."
In just five short years, the WCC has proved its worth to partners around the state. "We would definitely work with the WCC again in future projects," says Bryan of the BLM. "We've always had good experiences with these crews. Given the current economic climate, it will become even more important for BLM to continue to partner with members of the public and industry to achieve our management goals."
"We will certainly work with WCC again," says Gilchrist of the Sublette County Historical Society. "We are currently trying to find money to bring them back again next year."
After the WCC departed, Thompson wrote a glowing report to The Nature Conservancy's leadership and encouraged them to think creatively about how they might collaborate with the WCC in future years. "Given the WCC's competence, enthusiasm, and strong leadership skills, I can imagine a great variety of projects on which they could assist around the state – from range and riparian monitoring, to weed surveys and control, fence removal and construction, trail maintenance, and more," she stated.
As for herself, Thompson has already approached the WCC to reserve a crew for 2012. "In addition to the great work that they can help us to achieve, we are also excited by the opportunity to invest in the next generation of Wyoming land stewards," she says.
For an account of the WCC's founding and first year, see "Nice Working with You," UWyo magazine, Fall 2007.