Kelly Wolfe is still looking for the stereotype he says the media too commonly gives today's teen-agers.
"Our teen-agers are a lot smarter than we think they are. These kids are our future, future senators, Bill Gates or even governors of Alaska," he said. "Their armament is shovels, hoes and hard hats."
Wolf is the founder and coordinator of the Youth Restoration Corp. The teens he commends are corps members who spend their summers restoring stream and river banks.
"Our sole mission is to promote stewardships of our youth. If we can promote morals and ideals to them, they won't be doing the same things we did," he said. "We can start working with our kids today."
Wolfe has seen 54 teens move 40 yards of dirt across a river in two days or four kids more 10 yards in three hours without any whining or complaining.
"They are very enthusiastic about what they do," Wolfe said. "Kids love that what they are doing is being recognized by their peers and teachers."
What they are doing is definitely not going unnoticed. YRC has 119 sponsors, including several major companies from the Lower 48, as well as many in Alaska. Beyond monetary support, the program has earned commendation from as far as the White House.
However, Wolfe said it is the praise closer to home, from fishers on the river, that the kids seem to appreciate.
"It means a lot to have a stranger come up to a teen-age boy or girl and tell them that they are doing a great job."
The acclaim is not misguided. YRC crews have been working hard restoring riverbanks for the past four years.
Wolfe, formerly a contractor, started the program after he worked on a restoration crew and decided the job was something youths could do for their community. In 1997, he contacted Sen. Ted Stevens and began the nonprofit organization.
Today, the program is set up much like any other summer job.
"We want the youth to take the initiative to go get the application," Wolfe said.
Wolfe is able to hire 12 of the 60 teen-agers from ages 16 to 19 who apply for each of the two four-week programs every summer. The teens are paid $7 an hour through funding from the U.S. Forest Service and the watershed fund.
They are chosen based on recommendations, interest and a willingness to take part in a community project by working as a team, Wolfe said.
Teamwork is one of the skills these teens will learn by the end of the summer. Together, they love the river back to life, Wolfe said.
This season, a crew completed the first root restoration ever done on the Kenai Peninsula. That project, along with a 450-foot trail revegetation a group did a few years ago, are the two his crews are most proud of, he said.
Generally, they work on restoring the damage to the banks that the sports fishery has damaged. Agencies like the Forest Service develop walkways, and YRC restores around them to allow continued access to the riverways, he said.
The Kenai crew started work on the Kenai River May 29. They restored a 27-foot alcove at Cottonwood Point on the Russian River. The root wad restoration project involved placing tree stumps on the bank and building up sod around them so the willows put there can establish a root ecosystem.
"As we enter into different areas to fish, riverbanks on the Kenai are very sensitive to erosion," Wolfe said. "Because of sensitivity, the erosion can take place very easily. Through human impact and high flow events, erosion starts taking place and chunks of the bank start to flow away."
This results in a wide, shallow river which does not protect eggs laid and fertilized by spawning salmon. Wolfe began the YRC as an effort to counteract these problems.
"We began to restore impacted areas and educate the public through our presence on the river," he said. "A lot of river guides point out restored sites."
The program not only educates the public, but Wolfe said it also is designed to teach the teens.
"It is 60 percent work and 40 percent hands-on education on hydrology, ecology, plants, glaciers and aquatic bug life," Wolfe said. "It is lively education designed to inspire youth about what they are doing."
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