Mike Sturm looked somewhat like a gymnast walking the thin path of a balance beam as he attempted to stomp down the fibrous blanket-like material he and other Youth Restoration Corps members used to cover the bed of willow branches and soil that lines a stretch of the Quartz Creek bank near Cooper Landing.
The material, which resembles a cross between window screens and very thick netting and is made of naturally biodegradable material, refused to squash under Sturm's weight, so he resorted to more animated and exaggerated motions. As he perched precariously on the mound, only inches away from the rumbling creek, it seemed as if any moment there would be a splash as he tumbled into the stream.
"Don't fall in," shouted YRC supervisor, Kelly Wolf, jokingly, before offering to do the task himself if a little extra weight and oomph was needed.
Finally, Sturm, 17, satisfied for the moment with his handiwork, stepped down and began to strategically embed another layer of willow branches into loose soil.
"I've seen these kids move 40 feet of dirt in two days," Wolf said as he sat watching Sturm and 11 other youths work on different projects throughout the site. "If you focus teen-agers in the right direction, they can literally move mountains."
Since its inception in 1997, the YRC hasn't exactly moved mountains, but when it comes to bank restoration, it is undeniable that the group has been a significant force. In five years, 198 youths have restored a little more than two miles of riverbank throughout the Kenai River drainage system.
"If those 198 youth tell one person, if they teach their kids -- numbers multiply," Wolf said explaining how, through the YRC, teens' sense of stewardship can be perpetuated.
"Kids can be a tremendous educational force. Adults are stubborn. Youth, they are just starting to form opinions.
"We should learn from them. Teen-agers can be very persuasive."
It would seem that some anglers on the Russian River, one of the YRC's ongoing projects, are definitely convinced of YRC's impact.
"Down at the Russian River, (fishers) always come up and say nice things," said Sturm, a Skyview High School senior.
Wolf also observed anglers sharing their appreciation with the youth.
"Yesterday, down on Russian River, I counted nine different fishermen walking by with strings of fish and coolers of fish stopping and commenting to the kids," Wolf said in an interview June 19. "Fishermen are reaping the benefits. The public is telling kids, 'you are going a great job.'"
Wolf said it is those accolades, in combination with teaching kids lifelong stewardship lessons at an early age, that make this program beneficial for both the youth and the streams they are helping restore.
"I love it," said Tim Kirby, who, at 19, has completed his freshman year at Boise State University in Idaho and is back with YRC for his third summer.
As a the youth leader for the group, Kirby joked that he basically "got to tell these guys what to do," but more seriously he noted that the group is more like a family.
"A lot of us go to school together," said Morgan Lyons, 17, who will be a senior at Skyview in the fall.
She and Sturm agreed that the opportunity to work outdoors is a big benefit of working with YRC. However, Sturm noted that the long-term result was also worth his time and effort.
"It is something you can come back and see," he said.
Kelly Wolf, director of the Youth Restoration Corps
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
So, while scientific debate is constant regarding whether bank restoration is the correct way to go about reversing human impact on the river's ecosystem, for these youth the answer seems clear.
"The American River Society's statement on river habitat restoration is 'remove the offending force,'" Wolf said. "My argument is that the offending force is us. How do you remove us. I am not going anywhere.
"We have regulations on king fishing on the Kenai and the Kasilof (rivers). Tell me we haven't impacted. Is it the nonresidents, the residents, the guides, high flood events?" he asked rhetorically. "Why should we point a finger? Do what's right for the river."
And that is exactly what YRC believes it does for four to six weeks a summer.
"The true objective is to within three years have an area that no one will ever know we were here," said Dean Davidson, a soil scientist for the Chugach National Forest who spends part of his summer with the YRC.
After the group has completed a project, the river may appear more disturbed than it was before the youths arrived. But, Davidson said, in two to three years, everything will have naturally decomposed, creating a stronger more sustainable riverbank.
"What we are trying to do is stop people-induced erosion. Many river systems need erosion to a degree. It depends on the system. A certain amount is good. You have to work with the system to create a balance," said Davidson, adding that, in his opinion, there isn't really a viable alternative to bank restoration.
Many national corporations agree with Wolf and Davidson enough to support 75 percent of their operating budget. The rest is made up from grants given to YRC by government agencies like the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Other agencies, such as the Chugach National Forest and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, support the YRC through in-kind donations of time and advice about what should be high on YRC's list of projects.
This is partly reflected in the method by which each summer's locations are chosen. Initially, Wolf and Davidson visit different possible locations around the Kenai Peninsula. Next, the YRC board of directors, in conjunction with the Department of Fish and Game, ranks those sites in order of importance, taking into consideration the limitations that a group of teens has as far as tools available to them.
Through a grant from the DEC, this process now will be extended to ranking and assessing peninsula sites beyond the Kenai River system so that eventually there will be a master database of all peninsula locations that need attention.
"I am excited that resource management agencies gave input and support because corporate America looks at resource management as the experts," said Wolf, who added that now YRC sponsors are realizing what the group is accomplishing is "great, not just good."
"When I started the YRC, I never dreamed it would be like this," he said. "People are really starting to notice, 'hey something is going on, and it's good.'"
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