Marines learn about dirt, ecology

Posted: Monday, July 02, 2001

The shores of Liepitz Lake were covered in swarms of teens clad in bright yellow hard hats and dirt covered clothing.

At noon they migrated in packs to the gravel and dirt road where a dozen or so vehicles were parked, and Vera Wolfe was serving lunch out of an opened trunk.

The teens grabbed their grub and perched wherever they could find room. Several climbed onto the paving machine abandoned by construction workers and others sprawled on the grass patches.

For an hour they rested in the glaring noon sun, waiting until they were called back to their jobs on the shore of the lake.

More than 90 teens gathered June 25 at the manmade lake north of Quartz Creek near Cooper Landing to learn about and participate in riverbank restoration.

The group was made up of at least 30 members of the Youth Restoration Corps who were joined by 61 members of the Young Marines from throughout the Lower 48 and the Kenai Peninsula. Together the groups worked on restoration education.

"The goal of this project is education," said Kelly Wolfe, founder of the YRC. "They are learning about restoration techniques and how to identify vegetation.

"Totally 100 percent education."

YRC members and Young Marines worked at six different education modules throughout the week. The focuses ranged from plant identification to aquatic education to map and compass reading to steep and gentle slope restoration to gold panning.

Each module lasted for three hours and groups usually went through two a day. By the end of the week, each youth would have finished every one, learned a lot about aquatic ecology and helped in the restoration of a lake used to rear coho salmon.

"The beauty of it is that we are able to thank the kids," said Gary Liepitz, a retired Department of Fish and Game biologist who came up to Alaska to help with the program. "Recreational fishermen are going to benefit for years to come."

The lake was originally a gravel pit used by the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities when it worked on the Sterling Highway near Cooper Landing. Different agencies worked together to transform the gravel pit into a lake. They also formed a stream to feed the lake.

Coho salmon were in the lake within 11 months of its creation, said Wolfe. There are many agencies that need to be complimented for what they've done, he said.

"Now that we have a hole, let's do something positive. What would you rather have, a hole or something positive?"

Wolfe opted for something positive. He worked with peninsula Young Marines during summer 2000 and after conversations with Mike Kessler, national executive director of the Young Marines, they decided to bring the nation to Alaska.

They are environmental ambassadors, said Kessler.

He announced the decision at a commander's conference and posted the information and application on the World Wide Web. Initially, the program was planned for 100 youth, but because of budget cuts their numbers were cut to 60.

Eighty-seven teens 16 years and older applied for the activity.

According to the coordinator, Joe Bles, teens were chosen on a first come, first serve basis.

Katie Giebel found out she was going only four days before the group was scheduled to leave. The 17-year-old from Ravenna, Ohio, came with eight others from Cleveland, Ohio.

She didn't quite understand what they were going to be doing, she said, but it sounded like a great opportunity.

Katie Burck, 16, of Kasilof, is a member of YRC and applied for the position because it sounded like the perfect summer job.

"I really like being outside and seeing a difference in what we do."

An executive officer from Colorado Springs, Colo., agreed. Susan Armstrong first heard of the program from Bles.

"I said, 'Put my name at the top. I am going,'" she said.

Alaska and the YRC didn't disappoint.

"I think it is awesome team building. The scenery is great," said Armstrong.

The visiting Marines and crew saw their fair share of Alaska creatures. On the drive from Anchorage to Seward, where they stayed for the week, they saw moose and a bear.

Wolfe said their resident bear, whom he has dubbed George, paid the group a visit during the week.

They had the opportunity to see even more of what Alaska has to offer on a train ride back to Anchorage.

Before the Young Marines left, the YRC ended the week and season with its annual barbecue.

"After the program is over, we invite the community to see, and to say, 'Wow, I guess our teen-age youth are doing a lot more than carrying guns to school,'" Wolfe said.

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