Conservation Program Brings Urban Teens to Heart Mountain

Aug 22, 2014

This summer, a Nature Conservancy Program called LEAF offered urban high schoolers the chance to live and work in the shadow of Heart Mountain north of Cody. The hope is to get the kids to love Wyoming so much they’ll come back for its colleges and its jobs in conservation. Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards has more.

Floppy sunhats float over waist-deep grasses along a lush irrigation ditch. The cliffs of Heart Mountain loom above. Keyarria Mack and Jacelyn Moore wear leather work gloves and carry serious-looking clippers and plastic bags. They are hunting the hillside for houndstongue, an invasive plant species. 

Mack calls it vicious.

“They have the purplish color to it,” Mack says. She’s one of five interns doing a paid work-study program called LEAF for the Nature Conservancy. The hope is to get the kids to love Wyoming so much they’ll come back for its colleges, not to mention, its jobs in conservation. The interns are definitely learning a lot about invasive species. 

“So what you do is you have to cut from the bottom, you can’t cut where the seeds are because they get stuck to your clothes and if it goes back to the ground it grows again. So you have to make sure you get a certain spot and…”  

She snips off a lanky plant with dark spinachy-looking leaves, and stuffs it into her garbage bag. So what do they have against this innocuous looking plant? 

“It shuts down your liver functions, well, the animals’ liver function,” says Alicia Griffin, another intern.  “So they die, so it’s not really good. And it’s invasive so basically it takes nutrients that native plants need.” 

“The LEAF Program is an internal conservancy program and stands for Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future,” says the program’s coordinator, Carrie Peters, says. She says the aim of the program is to transplant urban kids into wild places like Heart Mountain Ranch. But it’s not a guest ranch—they do real work like removing barbwire from wildlife migration routes or building trails. To get in, these students have to attend a Nature Conservancy-approved high school, which means they have a conservation curriculum. But that’s not all it took to get in. 

“We had to fill out an application, three essays and then they called us or emailed us letting us know we had an interview. It was about 24 of us they chose,” says intern Alisa Walton.

“What do you think it was that set you apart from everyone else?” I asked her.

She knew her answer without a second thought. “We like adventure.”

This year’s group is from Arabia Mountain High in Atlanta, Georgia and they’re all aspiring doctors and engineers. But Griffin admits her plans are still forming. 

“I was either going to do graphic art or some type of science,” she says. “Now I think I’m leaning toward wildlife biology because you get to do this.”

And Carrie Peters says that’s the point of the program: to get kids into conservation when they’re deciding their futures. 

“When they do decide to go to college and they hit the job market and stuff, they had this experience here in Wyoming. Like, oh yeah, you know, that was really cool that stewardship stuff we did on Heart Mountain Ranch. Maybe I’d be interested in looking for a job to do something like that.”

Peters says the idea is to help them fall in love with Place, with a capital P. For this year’s crop, the program succeeded in spades. Just get them started on the subject of the stars or snow or even—believe it or not—the wind.

“We don’t get breezes in Georgia,” Angel Carter says. 

“You get off the plane and—whoosh!” Walton adds.

“The wind was so nice,” Griffin says. “I think that’s the first thing I liked about it was the wind, and then I noticed the mountains and everything. But I think the wind drew me in.”

“The air, it’s very nice,” says Carter.

At the end of the day, the interns cart their heavy bags full of houndstongue back to the truck and heap them high to burn back at the ranch. Nearby, a few cattle are grazing. The students might like adventure but when it comes to cows…

“Alicia, don’t you dare!” protests Mack when the interns start mooing at the herd. “Alicia, shut up!  Look, they’re looking at you too. Stop playing games!” But they keep up their bovine sound effects. 

“What’s a cow going to do to me?” Griffin asks.

“Push you down the hill in those rocks. They don’t care,” says Mack.

They might be on the brink of making bright futures in conservation careers far from home, but for now they’re still just kids.