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Monday, June 17, 2024

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Teens ‘Rough it,’ See Shore, Work to Conserve Nature

Two volunteers from the Student Conservation Association (SCA) rake dirt on one of the three trails at Cape May Point State Park despite high temperatures and humidity. The teens spent three weeks doing conservation efforts at several New Jersey state parks as part of the SCA’s mission to build the next generation of conservation leaders. 

By Karen Knight

CAPE MAY POINT – About a dozen teens from across the nation recently left their imprints at the Cape May Point (CMP) State Park. They took with them impressions of “amazing wildlife, spectacular beaches” and an experience that showed them what “effective conservation looks like.” 
As part of the Student Conservation Association (SCA), the nine teens and two crew leaders spent a week at the park. They rebuilt and regraded trails that had eroded. They also worked at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, Bass River including the Batona Trail in the Pine Barrens, and Island Beach State Park during a three-week stay in the state.
Braving 90-degree weather with high humidity, the volunteers tent-camped at Belleplain State Forest during their stay, cooking on campfires, limiting their use of technology and learning how to work in a crew to maximize their output.  
“I can’t speak highly enough about the crews we’ve had,” parks Superintendent Lorraine McCay said about the SCA crews. Those crews have gone to the Cape May Point State Park for the last three years and helped with various projects.
“They are really hard-working, really good kids who have done a fantastic job for us,” she said.
This year, the teens hauled dirt onto eroded trails, making them safer for the “thousands” who visit them during the summer and year-round. The park has three marked trails of varying lengths that cover freshwater wetlands.
“We need to elevate the trails above the water, so people don’t have to walk in the water and, in the past, the SCA teens have helped with boardwalk replacement and rebuilding as well,” McCay said.
They also have worked with the park’s naturalist to remove invasive plants and plant native trees. “Each of those trees have to be wrapped in wire to keep the rabbits from eating the bark and the deer from rubbing their antlers on the bark,” she noted.
SCA’s mission is to build the next generation of conservation leaders and inspire lifelong stewardship of the environment and communities by engaging young people in hands-on service to the land.
It is modeled after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, a program that provided jobs for unemployed young men during the Great Depression in the conservation of public lands.    
SCA offers programs for high school students 15-19, gap years, college students and recent graduates 18 years and older.
At 21 years of age, short- and long-term paid positions to lead crews and programs are available as well.
One of the aspects of the SCA that McCay likes is that the teens come from all over the U.S. “They all have an image of New Jersey which is more typical of north Jersey,” she noted, “images of congestion, the turnpike, pollution. I love the fact that this program gives these kids an opportunity to see a part of the country they might not necessarily visit because of their impressions.”
SCA crew leader Lucas Daub, who grew up in New Paltz, N.Y., and lives in Binghamton, N.Y., said he was “pleasantly surprised” to experience the “other” New Jersey.
“Although we can indicate on the application places we’d like to work, we really don’t get a choice, so when I was assigned to New Jersey I was pleasantly surprised to find such spectacular beaches, amazing wildlife like ospreys and other birds, and the wonderful coast,” the 23-year-old said.
“We also took the crew to the Cape May (County) Zoo and Wetlands Institute, so hopefully they will become inspired by the environmental education they received,” he added. “Working on these conservation efforts shows them what effective conservation can look like and provide some really great experiences.”
Daub is in his first year with SCA, having graduated from the State University of New York at Binghamton with a degree in political science. He’s been teaching in the classroom and thought working with the teens through SCA would provide further development of his skills in terms of leading high schoolers and motivating them, while helping with conservation efforts, experiencing a part of the country he hadn’t visited, and eventually using those skills back in the classroom teaching.
He also has hopes of teaching in Japan in the future.
“The biggest challenge,” Daub said, “is hard to say because the kids are so eager and really gung-ho to work. They have a strong interest in the environment and with the right leadership, are really motivated to do whatever is needed.
“We try to create an atmosphere that is friendly, boosts morale and shows the teens that they can achieve their goals,” he added.
As part of his training before meeting his crew, Daub and his co-leader were introduced to everything from techniques to boost morale to setting goals and how best to foster diversity, to campsite cooking and “roughing” it in tents.
SCA provides all the materials needed during the three-week experience. While the crew leaders are paid, the teens are not.
“This is a real-life experience for the kids,” said McCay. “It’s hard work. They are exposed to conservation and the environment. They are camping in tents. It’s a great experience for them, and we get to appreciate their fantastic work as well.” 
Those interested in applying for the program or learning more can do so at https://www.thesca.org/about.
To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com.

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