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Learning the secretsof restoring nature

MOUNT ASHLAND ' Allison Wren, 13, inserted a plug of native grass into the earth, patted soil around it and then scooped a shallow moat around it.

We're planting grass plugs so we can stop erosion on the hill. The ring is so water will hold better and the roots can soak it up, said the Ashland Middle School student.

Public, private and home-schooled students from throughout the Rogue Valley not only worked to maintain and restore the delicate alpine environment at the Mount Ashland ski area, they learned the secrets of successful restoration during the 2003 Ski Ashland Youth Summer Service Program, which wrapped up Thursday.

Students planted grass plugs on a steep slope behind the lodge, but scattered native grass seed on relatively flat areas at the base of the Sonnet beginner ski run.

— The seeds would just wash away here, said Chris Hewitt, 14, an incoming freshman at North Medford High School, as he paused in his work digging holes for the grass with tools provided by the U.S. Forest Service.

The grass seed is covered by native straw for mulch to avoid introducing invasive weeds, according to Ada Rivera, program coordinator.

Inside the lodge, which stands dark and silent without the hubbub of winter activity, a dozen paper grocery bags sit filled with native grass stalks harvested by students.

Next year, the seeds will be separated from the straw and both components will be used by future program participants, Rivera said.

The ninth annual summer service program provided space for up to 17 students in each of three nearly week-long sessions. The program started with just four kids per session and involved only Ashland Middle School students, she said.

Participants originally earned scholarships for the ski area's after-school program, but now they receive a &

36;100 discount off their 2003-04 season pass, cutting the cost by half, according to ski area officials.

They also earned community service credit, which many schools now require. Tasks during the program included picking up litter, lugging rocks to armor slopes and reduce erosion, and painting fences.

Students also hiked on the nearby Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, heard a geology lesson at the summit and learned about ski area operations, including the on-site recycling program.

In the past three years, the kids have received the added bonus of instruction from Regional Ecosystem Applied Learning (REAL) Corps members ' college-age people who combine hands-on projects with learning about the environment. That partnership may end next year as REAL Corps prepares to shut down in the wake of financial problems with AmeriCorps, its parent organization.

REAL Corps member Sydney Reader, an Ashland resident, said the kids learn the value of teamwork and community service while battling erosion and doing other work to help the environment.

It's a great program for the younger kids to get involved, Reader said.

The entire experience has been an eye-opener for the young snowboarders and skiers who normally don't see the behind-the-scenes work that goes on at the ski area.

We've been learning about the mountain and the hard work they put into making it possible for the community to come here, Wren said.

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 482-3456.