Early Thursday afternoon, a small group of Klamath Tribal youth moved through overcrowded forest land, marking trees with green tape that will be left standing when clearing crews move through the area in the fall.
The work was one of the last days of a Klamath Tribal Youth Training and Employment Program and Lomakatsi Restoration Project partnership in which the 10 young adults conducted forest and watershed restoration projects on private and public lands.
As part of the Fremont-Winema Forest Restoration Stewardship Project, the program utilizes the forest as an outdoor laboratory to provide hands-on training and exploration of career paths in natural resources, ecosystem restoration, science and ecology.
Through the three-week program, which also involves partners The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, youth learn tribal history, vocation training and gain experience with restoration work that could lead to a career, said Lomakatsi executive director Marko Bey.
“It’s a hands-on program where they’re getting employed and paid, but then they’re getting a snapshot of a different career path they could take,” Bey said.
These youth could be the future of land management in the Basin, Bey said.
The forest lands also hold a cultural significance for the young men and women.
Domonic Johnson, 18, explained that during the first week of the program, he and his peers learned about tribal history and termination, and in the second week, heard from a variety of speakers and restoration experts about different ways to manage and preserve the lands. The third week focused on doing some of the restoration work themselves.
There is really no one way to help the environment, he learned; it’s about being as natural as possible.
“Back in the day this was all more wide, it was all open area, you could take your horses through it,” Johnson said, gesturing to the forest around him.
Lomakatsi’s Joe Ochoa, the workforce restoration manager who led the young men and women in their work, said the goal is to restore the forest and streams to their natural state. The forest land is piled high with small, dry brush, native ponderosa pines are choked by invasive species, and scattered dead trees add up to extreme fire danger, he said.
Ochoa appreciates being able to teach the teens that fire isn’t bad, but instead it helps the environment and keeps the trees and brush from overgrowing. If fire came through that forest now, it would destroy everything, burning too hot and climbing too high, he said.
“It gives me a chance to bring them out here and let them see what we’re trying to do to restore the land back to the way it used to be from what my father and my grandfather told me how it used to be,” Ochoa said. “I tell them this is what my father told me how it used to look and this is what we’re trying to work towards now.”
Sense of debt
After his experience in the program, Johnson, who grew up in the Chiloquin area, said he can see himself working in a restoration career later.
“You always feel like there is something that, you know, like you owe these woods, that you owe it to make it better for your kids and their kids, and you want there to be stuff for them too, so it’s about not being selfish with resources,” Johnson said.
For a few of the young men and women, the restoration work was more involved than they were expecting from a summer job.
“There’s a lot more thought than just coming out, chopping trees and just piling brush,” said Jacob Marshall. “You have to put a lot of thought in to it.”
After college, Marshall said he would consider pursuing a career in a similar field.
“This was our people’s land, we’ve got to help restore it to where it was, not just throw it away,” he said.
‘Forest out of balance’
The young men and women were paid for their work during the program through the Klamath Tribes, but led by Lomakatsi, Bey explained. This is the first year for the program in Klamath, but Lomakatsi has facilitated similar programs in Ashland, where the nonprofit is based.
Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry said the program is a “great opportunity” for tribal youth.
“It’s a great experience for them,” he said.
The program not only gives the youth an idea about potential future employment and practical job experience, but also teaches them about their history and the cultural significance of the land, he said.
Many of the Tribes’ members are intimately familiar with the land, either through hunting, fishing, or visits to sacred areas, and it’s clear that the forest is out of balance, Gentry said.
“The conditions have changed so much over the years,” he said.
Moving forward, Gentry said he would be interested in continuing partnerships like this program, and hopes that this year’s water agreement will bring more opportunities for tribal members to do restoration work on the forests and streams.
The partnership aspect of the program is important, said Bey; the variety of groups working together, as well as private timber companies, make the project unique.
The youth program is just one piece of the larger picture, Bey said. Later this year, adult crews will move through the forest clearing brush and trees, and the partners will continue working toward restoration, he said.
“This is really significant,” Bey said.