The hike up Yellowstone’s Specimen Ridge from the Crystal Creek trailhead is challenging for even experienced hikers. The steep sandy slope makes the journey difficult, but the coveted views of petrified trees against the backdrop of a deep, wide valley filled with bison are definitely worth the arduous trek. Carrying tools and heavy metal signs to guide tourists away from eroded social trails certainly adds to the challenge, as does digging post holes into the rocky outcrop, but one worker seems to move at twice the pace of others. At 4’10”, Juana Lopez, 16, remains a dynamo of energy the whole work day, scrambling around others as the call goes out for “pick-mattocks” or “shovelers!”
Juana started her conservation work at 13 years of age. She tells how her older brother was a former Green Team youth for Groundwork Lawrence, back home in Massachusetts, but how the real motivation for her start was hearing a comment from a neighbor that hit her hard. “She told me that the streets are dirty, that no one cared, and that kids are just sitting at home doing nothing. I felt she was wrong and wanted to change her view on that,” Juana exclaimed. She joined the Groundwork Lawrence Green Team and hasn’t stopped working since.
Groundwork USA was founded in 1998 through a partnership between the National Park Service and the US Environmental Protection Agency. The organization engages local residents in marginalized communities across the US to improve the quality of life in their own neighborhoods through brownfields and urban waters reclamation and urban trail and greening projects.
Resting against a petrified tree, Juana reminisces. “We’ve done so much in Lawrence. We run a kite festival and help kids build kites and enjoy playing in the outdoors, we organize an Earth Day event and get nearly a thousand people out cleaning up the city, and we converted 17 vacant lots into pocket parks so people have a place outside to enjoy nature.”
Juana’s favorite accomplishment was building gardens in each of the local schools so that youth can grow vegetables and learn about healthy eating. “Groundwork runs a farmers market, and when I grow up I want to do culinary arts to teach others how to eat healthy organic food.” With a maturity beyond her years Juana adds, “This way I can also help bring food justice and help alleviate ’food deserts’ in my community”—a reference to the lack of green grocers in the inner-city.
We pause to look about the expansive valley below us: a breathtaking vista of a deep grassy valley rimmed by mountains. “I love coming to Yellowstone,” Juana blurted. “My favorite part is seeing how happy others are when they see the large animals and learn that they are free to wander wherever they want.”
Juana is spending a week working with Yellowstone National Park’s Youth Conservation Corps (YCC). The program, a collaboration between the Park and Groundwork USA, was founded by Judy Knuth-Folts, Deputy Chief of Resource Education and Youth Programs, and Bob Fuhrmann, Youth Programs Director and Volunteers-in-Park Coordinator at Yellowstone. The crew is made up of 60 Groundwork youth from 23 different cities working on trail improvements and other such preservation efforts through the end of August. Juana added, “I think working with YCC is great because it helps you think about what you want to do in the future and gets you doing something outside your comfort zone so that you have new experiences.”
Juana jumped up from her break and hurried off to work. I asked her if she had advice for other youth considering doing work in conservation. She paused. “Don’t be afraid to try new things; you might end up loving it. There’s a whole world out there to experience and the first step is when you decide for yourself to take action.”
Curt Collier is Groundwork USA’s National Youth Programs Director