“We believe young people change the world.” That’s the message that greets you on the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps(VYCC) website home page. In July, a VYCC crew changed Vermont Family Forests’s world in the best of ways. Led by crew leaders, Mac and Caroline, the crew of eight energetic young people camped at VFF’s Anderson Wells Farm by night and wielded their hand tools in service of the land by day.
Each of the crew’s week-long projects over the summer focused on improving the water quality of Lake Champlain. During the spring, VYCC had contacted us to see if we had projects that fit that criteria. “Absolutely!” was our enthusiastic reply. A steep and actively eroding section of an old access road at VFF’s Abraham’s Knees land in Lincoln—in the headwaters of the New Haven River, whose waters flow into Lake Champlain—called out for their care.
VFF’s homestead caretaker, Dechen Rheault, welcomed the VYCC crew to Wells Farm when they arrived for their work detail. They were thrilled with their new home on the farmstead, and their tents soon dotted the grass, often tucked in the shade of one of the farm’s many apple trees. The newly restored cidery barn became their crew kitchen. They were especially excited to see Durga, our earth oven, so we started the week by firing up the oven and having an impromptu pizza party.
Each morning they drove their van and tool trailer to VFF’s Abraham’s Knees land, about four miles away. This long, narrow, 54-acre rectangle of land lies on the west flank of Mount Abraham. The land rises—at first gradually, then more steeply—from the access trail entrance on its western edge, at 1,380 feet, to the height of land at the land’s eastern edge, about 1,825 feet in elevation.
An old access trail runs the length of the land and, like many old logging roads, takes a pretty direct route up the mountain, which means that it’s mighty steep in places. For the land, that means that runoff has taken a heavy toll on soil along the route, creating deep gouges that further siphon soil and water from the land.
We tasked the VYCC crew with the job of slowing, spreading, and sinking the flow of runoff from that old access road. We are in the process of creating an alternative trail up the mountain—a line of grace that will have an average grade of no more than 7%. But even if it’s no longer used, that old access road will continue to suck nutrients and water from the land unless we repair it.
The VYCC crew’s work was a beautiful example of participatory rewilding. Without human intervention, natural rewilding—in the form of blow-downs across the roadway—had slowed runoff in places. With their light-on-the-land hand tools, they VYCC crew was able to more than 30 waterbars without disturbing the rewilding that had already taken place. Their ground work not only diverted water off the trail, but also diffused the runoff so it could seep back into the forest soil. The crew was able to complete their work at Abraham’s Knees more quickly than expected, so we sent them down to the lands of The Watershed Center in Bristol—a close partner of Vermont Family Forests—to continue their work of stabilizing soils, this time on the new Commoner’s Return Trail.
On August 3, VFF’s executive director David Brynn attended the crew’s end-of-season celebration at the Burlington waterfront, on the shores of the lake whose waters had been the focus of their summer’s efforts. “ I was so impressed to learn about the wide variety of water conservation projects they undertook over the summer—from forest to farm to trails adjacent to the lake to water chestnut pulling in the lake itself,” David said. “In each project, the crew had a problem to solve, and they got to be innovative in their solutions.”
One of our favorite sayings at VFF is an Irish one: “The greatest soul restoration is that which is done on behalf of the land.” Thank you, Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, for connecting young people with soul-restoring work. And thank you, VYCC crew members, for the energy, kindness, and care you brought to your work on our homelands.