A Kenai group that employs area youths to restore fish and wildlife habitat drew commendations Friday from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Vice President Al Gore.
The recognition came during a picnic last week celebrating three days of cooperation between the Youth Restoration Corps, which drew the national notice, the Youth Conservation Corps of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Platoon Alpha One of the Young Marines of America.
The three groups worked Wednesday through Friday at restoring 250 feet of trampled Kenai River banks near the confluence with the Russian River.
"You get to be outside, learn about trees and wildlife and what kind of grass is there, and you meet new people" said 18-year-old Brandi Deleon of Kenai, who works for the Youth Restoration Corps and belongs to the Young Marines of America.
"I enjoy talking, working outside and having fun. I get a chance to actually play in the dirt. Some girls are like, 'Oh, I can't stand the dirt.' I feel like, 'You're dirty, you had a good day's work.'"
Mark Chase, deputy director of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said the project not only restored streamside habitat, but also protected archaeological remains threatened by riverbank erosion.
"They got a lot of work done," Chase said. "It was good cooperation between the Youth Restoration Corps, the Young Marines and the Youth Conservation Corps."
Several dozen youths shoveled dirt, transplanted sod and planted willows, joined by adult volunteers, including Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley and retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Mike Kessler, national director of the Young Marines of America.
"To have that kind of recognition, to have the vice president, the director of the Young Marines and Mayor Bagley supporting the project, that there says it all for the kids,"said Kelly Wolf, director of the Youth Restoration Corps. "We even received a letter from the first lady, Hillary Clinton."
Dan Vos, a fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Anchorage, gave Wolf a letter from Gore and an "Ecological Hero" award from NOAA headquarters in Washington, D.C., one of 64 such awards given nationwide. NOAA and Gore recognized Wolf for his work with the Youth Restoration Corps in recent years on the Kenai, Russian and Little Susitna rivers.
"I think the legacy will be through the kids and what they've learned and if they develop stewardship in the long term," Vos said.
Wolf gave the credit to his youthful charges.
"I don't feel like a hero," he said.
Nearly a quarter-million people fish the Kenai River each year near its confluence with the Russian, he said.
"That's a tremendous amount of foot traffic," he said. "It destroys the vegetation, which is habitat for small salmon fry that are moving to sea. Then, you see widening of the river. It starts to shallow out and change course. If you allow that to continue, you lose fry from predation and shallowing of the spawning grounds."
The project last week was to restore a layer of topsoil, grass and willows. A local contractor delivered 40 cubic yards of topsoil -- about four dump truck loads -- to the Russian River ferry.
Youths from the three groups packed the dirt into 1,000 burlap bags, loaded those onto the ferry and used gasoline-powered tracked wheelbarrows to haul the bags to the work site three-quarters of a mile upstream. They packed in 65 logs, each 25 feet long, made from rice straw. They cut sod from a site near the restoration project.
They terraced the damaged riverbank with straw logs and soil, then planted the terraces with sod and willows. Timothy Yamaoka, a 9-year-old Young Marine from Soldotna, said the best part was carrying the straw logs.
"They hurt my shoulders, but we had fun doing it," he said.
Wolf said Bagley worked hard the whole three days.
"The kids worked his tail off," he said. "He shoveled dirt, packed wheelbarrows and did restoration work. Then, he had enough energy to take Col. Kessler up the Skyline Trail on Saturday. The mayor is a former Marine."
The work was part of two projects the Youth Restoration Corps plans this summer. The first project, from May 30 through June 23, includes bank restoration work on the Kenai and Russian rivers, Quartz Creek and Trail River. The Young Marines helped on the Kenai River portion for three days last week, and the Youth Conservation Corps helped Thursday.
The second project, from June 26 through July 21, includes bank restoration projects by the new Kenai River Center and by the purified outfall from the city sewer treatment plant in Soldotna.
Wolf founded the nonprofit Youth Restoration Corps four years ago to conduct habitat restoration work and teach youths about fish, wildlife and habitat. Future projects may include reforesting areas decimated by spruce bark beetles, he said.
It costs about $155,000 per year to run the two programs each summer. Wolf said that money comes from more than 100 sponsors, including the American Sportfish-ing Association, Unocal, Tesoro, Princess Tours, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Forest Service. Like the Youth Conservation Corps workers, Youth Restoration Corps workers are paid.
During the picnic Friday, Tom Chapple, director of the Air and Water Quality Division of the Alaska Department of Environ-mental Conservation, awarded the Youth Restoration Corps a $70,000 grant. Wolf said that will help fund restoration work on the Kenai River this year and in the Susitna River drainage next year.
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