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Getting their hands dirty

At 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, recent South Medford High School graduate Hunter Bradford certainly has the muscle to scrape blackberry bush roots to smithereens, and that’s exactly what he was doing under the scorching-hot sun Tuesday afternoon near a private trail in south Ashland.

But while his size may be an asset when it comes to ramming his McLeod tool into the rocky earth or grabbing rebounds, something Bradford plans to do this winter for the Southern Oregon University men’s basketball team, it can also be a detriment, because being the tallest also makes you the most obvious target.

“I actually got stung three times today, at the same time,” he said, laughing, as he leaned on his McLeod, a half-hoe, half over-sized fork. “I was walking through, cutting some bushes, looked down and I had bees all over my legs. That wasn’t fun. I took off running through the woods, trying to get out of there.”

Bradford’s escape may not have been a complete success, but the stings didn’t prevent him from rejoining the rest of his blackberry-cutting crew, which is in its second week in the Lomakatsi Restoration Project’s month-long Ashland Watershed Youth Training and Employment Program. Established in 2013 as part of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship project, the youth training program employs 20 juniors and seniors from Ashland, Phoenix, Talent and Medford, who are paid $10 an hour to work on a wide variety of forest and watershed restoration projects, from clearing invasive species to riparian restoration at he Ashland Pond.

The program costs about $75,000 annually, according to Lomakatsi co-founder and executive director Marko Bey, and is funded by a host of donors, including the Oregon Community Foundation, the city of Ashland, The Carpenter Foundation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Those who make the cut — 52 students applied this year — also benefit from LRP’s impressive list of guest presenters, experts in their fields who drop in each day to talk about their work. The presenters talk for about an hour and include, among others, Klamath Bird Observatory science director Jamie Stephens, The Nature Conservancy forest ecologist Kerry Metlen, Ashland Mayor John Stromberg and Bey, a Queens, New York, transplant who co-founded the nonprofit Lomakatsi in 1995.

“Then they get exposed to these specialists, and not only do they learn about their skill, and the ecology and the biology, we elevate it,” Bey said. “We want (the guest presenters) to tell their story about how they got where they’re at, where they went to school, how they shaped their interest. It’s really cool because they get an insight to a career path that could take them somewhere.”

“It’s very, very interesting,” said Khali Tahuna, an incoming junior at Ashland High School. “I like working outdoors. I’d rather be outdoors than inside, and I as at school and I saw one of the applications and I was like, let me try this out. It’s very hard work, but I had no idea about the things that we’re learning about, especially the new species that are coming up. I’ve learned something new every day.”

On Tuesday, Tahuna and her crew used their McLeods to clear a trail that runs through a private landowner’s property while, 50 yards up trail, Bradford and his group hacked out a thicket of blackberry bushes, which thrive in southern Oregon and are difficult to remove.

It’s labor-intensive, dirty work not without risks — bees, poison oak and thorns, to name a few — but for recent AHS graduate September St. John, it’s well worth it.

“I used to live out in the woods outside of Talent when I was a kid,” said St. John, who’s headed to Oregon State University, where she plans to major in mechanical engineering. “But my family moved into town when I was halfway through high school, so this is kind of my last chance to get out in the woods before I move into town for college, into Corvallis. Also, it’s a way for me to make money to pay for college. I was excited about the chance to get outdoors.”

The work, St. John said, is diverse and rewarding.

“Earlier today I was pulling out yellow star thistles, and before that we were loping down madrone re-sprouts,” she said. “It’s been really fun actually. I don’t mind the hard work. For me it’s fun to get to hike in the woods and see all sorts of cool scenery like this. Yesterday we were in the Colestin Valley digging a stream bed to put logs in there and slow down the water so it erodes less, and that was really fun for me because I like rivers and creeks and stuff like that.”

Lomakatsi crew manager John Cymore said most of the training program hires, like St. John, seem to care about the work and enjoy it, which is why they were selected in the first place. The applicants are chosen only after a lengthy screening process that includes an interview before three Lomakatsi employees.

“They’re really quick to adapt, they’re really quick to absorb a lot of information,” Cymore said. “They’re willing to learn, they’re willing to step outside their comfort zone, kind of embrace new things and embrace new ideas, and it’s really refreshing for me.”

Bey touted the program as unique and innovative, which is why he believes it has gained national attention. Some of the students Lomakatsi hires stay on for a full year. That was the case for three students last year, he said, including one who worked with an ecologist in inventory and data collection.

And for those who move on into completely unrelated fields, he noted, Lomakatsi often goes down as their first job reference.

“There’s no program like this anywhere,” Bey said. “There are youth programs doing trail work — great youth programs. But what we’re doing is exposing them to this emerging science and practice of ecosystem restoration. A lot of kids go out and they’ll just do trail work, or they’ll do invasive weed pulling, they’ll do youth core type projects, which are great. But we go into the detail of how these ecosystems have departed, the scientific underpinnings on how to address it, and then the art of how to put it on the ground. Because restoration is an art and a science.

"You gotta have the on-the-ground practice, so that’s what they’re doing here.”

 Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.