Conservancy offers students opportunities

ELKINS – Four students from New York City high schools will spend 10 days in West Virginia this summer, working to improve West Virginia landscapes while learning about environmental careers.

The teenagers are participating in paid internships offered through The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future program, a 20-year-old hat engages urban youth in conservation activities today so they will become stewards for our planet tomorrow.

For the first part of their visit, from July 8-11, the LEAF interns will be working at the Conservancy’s Gandy Ranch project, a 555-acre high-country conservation project that provides a ‘land bridge’ between Laurel Fork Wilderness and the Seneca Creek Backcountry in the Monongahela National Forest, said Mike Powell, land steward for the Conservancy’s West Virginia program, who supervises the students while they are in West Virginia.

Later, the crew will tackle projects with the Heart of the Highlands Trail System and the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

The students, Fanny Ma, Zerlina Lin, Navneet Kaur and Brianna Aguilar attend Stuyvesant High School, the High School for Environmental Studies, the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School and the New York Harbor School, respectively.

“LEAF interns have been coming to West Virginia for the past five years and we’re happy to welcome them back,” Powell said. “Some of these students have never spent extended time out of the city, and yet they’re eager to learn, and willing to try anything. It’s really satisfying to see that.”

Since 1995, LEAF has partnered with environmentally themed high schools to provide hundreds of students with opportunities to live, work and play in nature. Students are divided into teams and paired with professional mentors. They work alongside Conservancy scientists to protect and restore habitats, plant native trees and help save endangered species while learning about careers in conservation.

At Gandy Ranch, the students will work to support restoration of the forests on this privately owned area that provides a habitat connection between some of the wildest lands within the Monongahela National Forest. Last December, the Conservancy announced protection of the land through a conservation easement. Since then, more than 28,000 trees have been planted on the property, which reaches all the way up to the 4,636-foot summit of Pharis Knob, one of West Virginia’s highest peaks.

The LEAF interns will work to enhance this landscape by removing invasive species and monitoring the health of the spruce and northern hardwood tree plantings. They’ll also be surveying for rare species like the Cheat Mountain salamander, Powell said.

In addition to working, the students also will visit colleges and have some fun with outdoor activities like rafting or hiking.

“The main goal of the LEAF program is to expose urban youth to nature and conservation careers at a young age to ensure a passion for the environment that will stick with them both personally and professionally for the rest of their lives,” said Brigitte Griswold, director of youth programs for The Nature Conservancy.