As he digs up another shovelful of rock from an illegal dam on Indian Ford Creek, 17-year-old Jason McCabe says, "Im glad to be out here, this is my favorite part of the program, a chance to give back to the community."
The Damascus resident is a cadet in the Oregon National Guard Youth ChallenNGe program. "I didn't think I was going to get into the program, but when I did I decided to do my best to improve myself," McCabe says.
Kala Golden, an intern with Deschutes Soil & Water Conservation District and a senior Natural Resources student at OSU-Cascades, is in charge of the 45 cadets who gathered in mid-November to "correct 20-years of renegade land practices," as Jan Roofner, technician for DSWCD, puts it.
Years of overgrazing have left the entire meadow knee-deep in invasive reed canary grass and cheat grass—not to mention the illegal ditches and dams shunting water off to private lands.
In addition to removing the illegal dams and other barriers, the cadets also dug hundreds of ditches along the riparian area, removing reed canary grass and placing bundles of native willows in the ditches. As the willows grow and develop shade, the effort will bring the creek's temperature down to normal.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture earlier identified the project as imperative for the life of Indian Ford Creek. DEQ has listed Indian Ford (as well as most of the Whychus watershed) as "at risk" due to rising stream temperatures and the negative effects on water quality. A restoration project of this magnitude would have cost a lot of money had it been contracted out, but with the cadets doing the work, not only is the task cheaper, but it's a valuable learning experience.
"This is a long-term project (upwards of five years), but we are currently making some good progress with the help of some of our local youth," Golden says. "Teaming up with the Oregon Youth ChalleNGe Program to assist with project needs is going to bring great improvements. We've had upwards of 50 cadets (ages 16 to 18) coming out each weekend, volunteering their time to assist with planting and restoration efforts. Most of these kids come from difficult backgrounds and have come to the Youth Challenge program voluntarily to improve upon their future."
The Oregon National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program is an alternative (residential) military-model high school where cadets live on site for five months. That's followed by a mandatory 12-month mentor phase back in the community, which can go on for five years.
Eligible individuals are accepted from all 36 counties in Oregon. Staff utilize a "hands off" tough love, caring, disciplined approach. If they stick with it, cadets are eligible to earn a high school diploma, GED or credit recovery of eight certified credits.
It ain't easy, but it is rewarding. The target population of students are generally students who have dropped out of high school, who are not attending school, or who are failing in school. In order to graduate, all students must have a placement and responsible plan to implement back in the community. Many participants end up earning their high school diploma or GED and go on to community college, enlist in the military, return to high school, join the job corps, or start a job.
As Cadet Jason Chafee puts it after he drops his bundle of willows into the ditch beside the creek: "I'm so glad to come out here. I want to give back to the taxpayers for the program we're in, thankful for a second chance to be a success in life."
It's a win-win deal, and it's also all or nothing.