LA teenagers head to Idaho for conservation work

Kevin Escalante, a student from the Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, Calif., works his way up a hillside collecting flea beetles in the White Owl Butte area near Rexburg. Escalante is one of four students from the school interning with The Nature Conservancy. On Tuesday the interns were collecting flea beetles, which feed on leafy spurge, a noxious weed. They were relocating the bugs to another area being overrun by the weeds. Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com

ASHTON — Four Californians traded beaches for beetles this summer and they couldn’t be happier.

The four teenage boys from Los Angeles are making memories that will last a lifetime by working on conservation efforts in Idaho.

Kevin Escalante, 17, and his friends joined The Nature Conservancy’s LEAF (Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future) program. They are the first interns through LEAF to come to Idaho. All admitted some variation of culture shock upon arriving, but none regretted their decision to take a leap into something new.

“I like being outside,” Escalante said. “I like being in nature. I hate being in the city. Out here, you can be lost for hours, but in the city, you see a corner and you know where you are. I like that feeling (of being lost).”

LEAF is a nationwide internship program where The Nature Conservancy teams up with environmental high schools around the country to bring inner-city teenagers to the woods to work on conservation projects. This year, the conservancy brought four students and a paid mentor from Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, Calif., to spend two weeks at its Flat Ranch property in Island Park and two weeks at its Silver Creek property in Hailey.

The mentor, Mike Pack, has been involved with the program for three years. He said LEAF is in tune with what the school tries to promote to its students.

“This is pretty foreign for most of them. Most of them haven’t been in places like this,” Pack said. “I believe that nature is more important than it ever has been because we are so urbanized. That’s really what we’re trying to do with the kids; turn them on to nature and show them that they are attached to it.”

While here, the interns are working on trails, putting up electric fence, conducting a butterfly survey of Flat Ranch and catching and releasing flea beetles.

On Tuesday, the interns worked on the Resource Conservation and Development’s flea beetle project, catching flea beetles in the White Owl Butte area northeast of Rexburg. The flea beetles were transported Wednesday to Henry’s Lake. The beetles feast on leafy spurge, an invasive plant encroaching on Yellowstone and Teton national parks.

The interns swept the leafy spurge with large nets, collecting the beetles, then emptying them into a funnel so they could be placed in a jar and transported north.

Kim Ragotzkie, the project coordinator, said it is more cost-effective to use the beetles to manage the invasive plant than to spray the plants with herbicide. The netting technique proved efficient as she estimated the team had collected 10,000 beetles in 30 minutes. The goal for the day was 100,000.

While collecting tiny beetles in the hot sun might not sound ideal, the interns went about their business with smiles.

“It looked really interesting, going out in nature,” said 17-year-old Cotton Howard. “I haven’t really done much proper hard work in my life, and I have to start somewhere.”

Going into the internship, Howard was nervous. Escalante and the two other interns, Jonathan Jara and Ramon Gonzalez, all were close friends. Howard was the outlier, but camaraderie quickly developed.

“They’re really friendly,” Howard said. “My worries are all gone; we’re getting along great.”

Jara said he has never done anything like this, but has been pleasantly surprised with how much fun he has had taking in new experiences. He said he wishes the program was longer than a month.

It didn’t take any arm-twisting to get Gonzalez apply for the program. He saw it as the perfect way to spend a summer.

“I love being outside,” he said. “I thought it would be a great way to spend a month outside. And, I don’t mind working. It sounded fun.”

Gonzalez plans to study environmental architecture and hopes to build environmentally friendly houses some day.

“I have never seen a cow that close up before,” Gonzales said. “The only mountains we see out there are the Hollywood Hills. I love the outdoors.”

Matthew Ward is The Nature Conservancy’s manager for the Flat Ranch Preserve. He spends the days with the interns and said the work they are doing is really beneficial for themselves and for the conservancy.

“It’s so valuable for kids in the inner-city to have that opportunity,” Ward said. “To be outside and exposed to kind of what we’re used to growing up in the west outside of major urban areas.”

Ward said outreach is important to The Nature Conservancy. He said if they don’t show urban children why conservation of land and animals is important, they might not ever know.

Escalante agreed.

“There’s no real downfall to it,” he said. “I’m helping out Idaho and they’re helping out me. I’m not looking forward to going home, I’m just excited about the next day and being able to work again.”

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