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Bone tired and loving it: Lomakatsi students clear the watershed

If you see a stand of scotch broom, pull it out by the roots. Scotch broom is a noxious weed and it burns hot, accelerating a fire.

Twenty young men and women pulled the weed on Thursday in the Ashland watershed, reducing fuel load in this important area. They’re interns in Lomakatsi Restoration Project’s 2018 Ashland Watershed Youth Training and Employment Program. Youth training programs are an important aspect of Lomakatsi’s work throughout the region to restore the environment and help communities develop sustainable forest and watershed management cultures.

The interns gathered on a ridge above Ashland around 8 a.m., kicking the dirt, eager to get out into the woods. These are youth who have made the cut, who have been selected from hundreds of applicants for a place in the Lomakatsi program. They are serious and committed, hardworking and ready to learn.

For two local students, Berkeley Skuratowicz and Branden Lambert, the work of maintaining the Ashland watershed is personal. The 2009 Tolman Creek Fire was way too close to their homes.

On Thursday temperatures in the Rogue Valley reached 104 degrees. The youth wore long sleeves, heavy dungarees, gloves and hard hats; they carried water. Some boots were worn and weary, others clean and new. They battled poison oak and a 70 percent grade up at Acid Castles in the hills at the west edge of Ashland to pull scotch broom and ended the day with a Lomakatsi specialist in plant ecology, biodiversity and restoration.

The students have two crew bosses who know how to motivate and teach forest management skills and values and keep the kids safe.

Ryan Pucket has been with Lomakatsi, which gets its name from the Hopi word for “live in balance,” for 10 years, teaching others and now leading the technical crew. Pucket partners with Gerardo Rodriguez, who was an intern in the first Lomakatsi youth program and later hired on. During the morning setup, Pucket and Rodriguez explain why and how that day’s work will be important to the preservation of the forest and the watershed. At the end of the day, a natural resource scientist will reinforce the day’s learning.

David Clayton, a wildlife biologist with the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest, talked with the youth at the end of Wednesday’s work day about the Ashland watershed and the Siskiyou Mountains.

“It’s really important to give the students that social and ecological background, that sense of place so they know where they’re working and why they’re doing it,” Clayton explained.

The kids get it, and they love it.

“I really want to change the watershed for the better because I’ve lived here for a while,” Berkeley said. “I feel like our generation wants to make a change and make it better for the next generation.”

Organized by Lomakatsi in partnership with other agencies, the program has trained hundreds of Southern Oregon youth in science-based forest and watershed management practices. Lomakatsi’s programs also expose the students to new ways of thinking about old ideas on the delicate balance between humans and the land and help students learn practical skills.

“I’m here to help the forest out and make it a better place,” says Raul Maya Reyes of Medford. “This will help me out in the future so I can work with my dad for a few years, and take over his job.”

Established in 2013, the Ashland Watershed Youth Training and Employment Program was Lomakatsi’s first youth training program. The success of Ashland Watershed program gave rise to two others, the Wild Rivers Youth Training and Employment Program in the Illinois Valley and the Klamath Tribal Youth Training and Employment Program. All three programs run concurrently, for four weeks during the summer in different geographic areas.

“After working all day, there’s such a sense of accomplishment,” says Kenna VanEtten Merris of Medford, who says she’s never really had a chance to experience the woods. Besides, her calf muscles are getting really strong, she adds.

At the end of the day, the kids are bone tired. And everyone sleeps like a log.

Lomakatsi will begin reviewing applications for the 2019 summer youth programs in April. For more information, visit www.Lomakatsi.org.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Photo by Maureen BattistellaAt the end of a long day of work, the interns relax in the shade and learn from scientists and other professionals working in natural resources. Sean Prive, a restoration ecologist with Lomakatsi talks with Thursday’s interns.
Photo by Maureen BattistellaYoung men and women fan out to pull weeds in the Ashland watershed near Acid Castle.