The deep buzz of the chainsaw cracks through the early-morning haze and vibrates through my fingers and wrists. In a few hours, casual hikers and gangs of cyclists will arrive here at Lilydale Regional Park and travel its paths along the Mississippi River in St. Paul.
Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa is a nonprofit organization that gives young people ages 15 to 25 hands-on learning opportunities that connect them with the outdoors, conservation work, environmental stewardship, and community service.
Corps members focus on skills that align with careers in natural resources. Work assignments include buckthorn removal, prescribed burns, and trail maintenance, says Elise Peterson, director of development, marketing, and communications. Members might also assist with fighting wildfires and flood relief.
As partners, federal and state agencies, local soil and water conservation districts, counties, cities, and universities all provide service-learning experiences. Conservation Corps also offers individual placements, similar to internships, with the DNR and other agencies.
"A lot of our alumni are going on to work within the DNR or the National Park Service," says Peterson. "But we also give our youth and young adults very broad leadership training, so they can go on and do anything they want."
Learn more and apply for the program.
My helmet is on, earmuffs are clamped down, and the face shield is snapped into place. My hands are unrecognizable in thick leather gloves as my fingers clutch the chainsaw handles. The hazard-orange Kevlar chaps scrape against each other as my steel-toed boots shuffle through fallen branches. Behind me, three other Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa crew members each rev their own chainsaws. Then we step into the woods to conquer invasive buckthorn and sprawling black locust trees.
I was born in St. Paul 22 years ago, and my childhood in Minnesota taught me an early appreciation for preservation and conservation of the natural world. These values are ingrained into our state's very essence—from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to quality local and state parks to citizens who spend weekends exploring the outdoors. We Minnesotans may not have mountains or oceans, but we have the thundering Mississippi River, towering bluffs, crashing Lake Superior, and thriving urban parks.
In a time of increasing environmental challenges, my generation will need to fight to protect and restore our state's wild spaces. I didn't set out to be an environmentalist or a conservationist. After four years of college spent in libraries, lecture halls, and student unions, I joined Conservation Corps simply so I could spend my summer hours outside. However, over the past few months, I have done things I could never have imagined: felled large trees, cleared fields with a brush saw, hand-pulled thousands of thistles, and sodded future oak savannas. My arm muscles have hardened from carrying piles of brush, and my palms have roughened with blisters. Most important, I have come to appreciate working long days out in the sun, using my hands to make a difference.
My chainsaw rips into the side of a black locust. Wooden flakes spray off the chain and cling to my chaps. I carefully make a downward-angled slice into the trunk, then move around to the other side of the tree to make an upward stroke that meets my first cut. A triangular chunk one-third the size of the trunk pops out, leaving a space called the face cut. A good face cut is essential to effectively fell a tree.
I call out to my crew that I am about to make a back cut. Then I move to the side directly opposite from my face cut. As the chainsaw moves toward the face cut, I can hear the wood begin to crack, and the tree's weight slowly brings it to the ground.
If you had asked me six months ago whether I thought I would be cutting down trees or driving a huge pickup truck, I would have said "no." My previous jobs and internships involved a lot of typing on computers and taking notes in meetings. Those are important skills, but my experience with conservation work outdoors has inspired me as a woman because I've gained confidence in doing physical labor and using mechanized tools.
Three of the four people on my crew are women under 24. We are defying traditional gender roles and undermining the stereotype that my generation is less involved in the environment. Conservation work takes everyone's skills, talents, and passions to fight degradation of our natural resources.
At times the fight against invasive species can feel hopeless. We spend our days removing buckthorn, weed-whipping Canada thistle, and hand-pulling motherwort, only to come back a couple of weeks later and find them replaced by new invasive plants. The natural world may not return to exactly what it once was, but we have to try to limit the damage.
Next year there will be another black locust tree where it shouldn't be. But there will also be another Conservation Corps crew member using precision chainsaw techniques to trim it back. It will take a lot of effort and perhaps some lifestyle changes to prevent further harm, but many people my age are already making those sacrifices. We get dirty, make little money, and work hard, all because we believe wild and natural spaces are worth saving.
When the last chainsaw rumbles to a stop, the woods are suddenly quiet again. The thick summer air has cooled slightly, and the number of park visitors has thinned. My forearms are fatigued and plastered with a layer of wood dust. The chainsaw hangs by my thigh as we silently march back to the truck. Tomorrow we will be here again.