Two public agencies in Valencia County have been able to take advantage of state grant funding to provide hands-on, paid experience to local youth to carry out community and conservation projects, and be trained in a variety of life and job skills.
Thanks to funding through the New Mexico Youth Conservation Corps Commission, the Valencia County Fire Department and Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District have been able to hire nine youth, ages 14 to 25, for 22 weeks.
Valencia County Fire Department wildland captain Rob Barr has wanted to bring a YCC group to the county fire department for more than a decade.
“I am so excited to have them here. We’ve been able to provide jobs to youth in our community and give them valuable training,” Barr said.
The department received the $86,843 award late in the fire season in 2022 and began training corps members as sawyers — using chain saws — to remove dead and downed trees in the bosque to mitigate fires and protect community assets.
The five Cottonwood Crew members received training in CPR, driving, basic fire-fighting skills and how to use mapping and communications equipment.
Crew members said they were drawn to the corps jobs because they enjoy working outdoors, and say the program has given them valuable skills and provided team building lessons.
Spencer Stanaland, who lives in Los Chavez, met Barr last spring while he was taking a class the captain teaches at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque.
Barr convinced him to become a volunteer firefighter for the county last September and encouraged him to apply for the YCC position.
“I enjoy it a lot,” Stanaland said. “I’ve thought about pursuing a career in fire-fighting. I’ve gotten a lot of training and valuable skills.”
Craig Lake, with the Albuquerque Fire Department, is the crew supervisor who works under Barr and said the position is an opportunity for him to do something he’s not done before.
“This is a chance to pass on knowledge and experience, and get the next generation started on the right foot,” Lake said. “As a leader, I’ve seen how far they’ve all come since day one. Now they are more self motivated. They see what needs to be done and work out for themselves how to get things done.”
The Cottonwood Crew will finish its work in June.
The four YCC hires with the VSWCD have been working on clean up and replanting efforts at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area complex after last year’s Big Hole Fire. They have also focused on improving riparian health, habitat-carrying capacity and fire mitigation.
District conservation program manager Johnny Chavez said the youth employees have been learning a great deal about botany and ecology during their time in the program.
“A lot of the conservation, biology or ecology work we do is also agriculture education,” Chavez said. “In conservation and agriculture there’s a lot of overlap.”
The district received $52,653 this year for four youth employees, and has been awarded $61,678 for the coming fiscal year to hire five corps members. There is a match required from the district of $12,512.
Chavez said the work next season will focus on fire mitigation, area enhancement at Rio Abajo Conservation Area, Stacy Unity Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area habitat improvement, trails improvement and monitoring ecosystems.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.