Indigenous youth find a way to preserve ancestral lands through conservation group
It’s a hot, sunny morning in Jemez Pueblo in northern New Mexico. Allen Baca, a conservation corps crew member, gives pruning instructions for a project at a trailhead at theWalatowa Red Rocks visitor site.
“The site is going to be anywhere within the grounds, don’t worry about those outside the boundaries,” Baca said. “So, yeah, just cut loose branches, any low-hanging branches.”
Baca and his fellow crew members aren’t just doing some community service. They’re working with the Forest Stewards Youth Corps – one of many programs that invite youth to participate in taking care of the land and its waterways.
The crew members start cutting and sawing the decaying branches on the trees. The pieces overflow the pickup truck’s bed, but Baca makes sure they take care of every tree.
“Sam, if you want to head down to that tree right there and just prune that one,” he shouted, “And me and Mell are going to go around collecting.”
But while the harvest of work is plenty, the workers are few. Many Indigenous people still have trauma from being moved off these lands by the federal government. Conservation groups such as the Forest Stewards Youth Corps see the value of working with Indigenous youth to encourage engagement with their ancestral lands and hope to offer opportunities to ignite a passion for the outdoors. Whether it's cutting branches or restoring riparian areas, they are fostering a connection with the land and developing what they hope are values the youth participants will take with them as they move forward in life and within their communities.
Baca believes that behind each branch, he can share with Indigenous youth the continued values of giving back to the community and being stewards of their ancestral lands.
“It's not just for the benefit of me, it's for the benefit of the community and then our future as well, our future kids …” Baca said. “We are keeping Mother Earth happy. We're keeping her alive and just hope that continues on.”
Getting hands dirty
The Forest Stewards Youth Corps summer program, which started in 1998, is made up of five crews across Northern and Central New Mexico and is staffed with 15-25 year-olds. The Jemez Pueblo crew, which joined in 2020, is the only one on Indigenous land.
Crew members are paid for their work and receive education and training on natural resource careers – all while restoring the land.
“What I love about this program is connecting youth to the outdoors and making sure that they have an understanding that land is managed,” said Cora Stewart of the Forest Stewards Guild, which runs the Youth Corps programs. “[I hope] that in the future, whether or not they pursue a career in natural resource management, they choose to be stewards of the natural world.”
For a little over two months, they work on a variety of projects, like trail restoration, building fences or timber work. They also tour industries like farms or logging sites in the community to learn from professionals.
The Jemez Pueblo crew started off the summer program working on the Evergreen Project. It focused on cutting down dense areas of trees and scattering the cut logs and twigs across the forest floor. The goal is to keep a wildfire burning at ground level and not let it move upwards, which could cause a bigger fire. The low-intensity fire will also help pave the way for new forest growth and protect the watershed.
Owen Pecos, a crew member from Jemez Pueblo, believes this work will help preserve the land for the future.
“I just want to help my community for the next generation, ” he said, “so what we started on is what they can catch on and finish.”
Just up the road from Walatowa Red Rocks is Jemez Springs. Concerns about invasive species like the Russian Olive and Salt Cedar trees prompted the team to tackle the riverside outcrops with chainsaws and blue herbicide.
That’s not the only reason they are clearing the site – it’s on ancestral lands that are sacred to the Jemez people. On the side of a cliff is an image of a woman wearing a shawl, which is a spiritually important landmark, according to Baca.
He said conservation helps clear and beautify more than the landscape.
"To keep restoring and conserving is to keep our traditions going as well …” he said. “We just have deep connections with our own lands as well. Taking care of your land just feels like you're just taking care of yourself as well."Allen Baca, a conservation corps crew member
“To keep restoring and conserving is to keep our traditions going as well …” he said. “We just have deep connections with our own lands as well. Taking care of your land just feels like you're just taking care of yourself as well.”
Most of these projects come from local governments or federal agencies so crew members can work in their own community and provide labor where it is needed. John Galvan, the tribal forest manager for Jemez Pueblo, said the work doesn’t get done without the trainees’ help.
‘There's always something to do, I say,” Galvan said.
Galvan said lots of the pueblo’s natural resource projects are critical to the livelihood of the Jemez people, as they live by their traditions and live off the land. He hopes the community sees the value of this work.
“One person said, ‘Well, they're just cutting trees,' and we're not just thinning, not just cutting,” he said. “Just think about the benefits of the ecology. What about the wildlife, the watersheds? So that's what we're working for, what we're teaching them as we go along, all the impacts of what we're doing.”
The challenge of conservation
There are other Indigenous conservation groups in the Mountain West, such as Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps, an AmeriCorps-affiliated program. Their crews work on habitat restoration projects on tribal lands in New Mexico, Arizona and Wyoming.
But Chas Robles, the director of Ancestral Lands, says recruitment has been challenging. Crew members have had to drive long distances to work on the projects. Pay is only $15 an hour. And some youth do not think the program is relevant to them.
“We see our young people, they're passionate about climate issues, they're passionate about environmental justice,” Robles said. “The Conservation Corps industry has been slow to act. We're doing that work, but we're not presenting the work that we do through those lenses.”
But there’s another barrier to participating: trauma. Indigenous people used to inhabit and manage lands that have become national parks and public lands. But the federal government forced them onto reservations.
“Every time we talk about public lands, it is a continuation of the injustice of the theft of those lands,” he said. “All public lands were at one time ancestral lands.”
That history or their impact on the land hasn’t always been acknowledged in natural resource jobs, Robles said.
“To totally ignore the Indigenous people who inhabited those lands … it's a huge injustice,” he said. “[When] we don't include those Indigenous voices, we don't get to fully understand the meaning of that place. We might feel something, but we don't understand it because we don't hear that full story as well.”
Still, conservation is interwoven into Indigenous teachings, and they know how to care for the land. A 2021 study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that Indigenous-managed lands accounted for protecting about 85% of the world’s biodiversity. Their distance and inability to impact those lands could decrease that percentage over time.
Robles said investing in youth training programs is critical to keeping that connection alive.
“Reconnecting those young folks to those places and spaces … is a really powerful opportunity for those young folks to really find a passion for the outdoors … ” he said. “They're going to bring so much experience and so much knowledge to how those [lands] are cared for and protected and preserved.”
Passion for Pueblo work
That passion is being pursued. Since the Forest Stewards Youth Corps program started 25 years ago, more than 900 youth have participated – the organization added some fall crews because it was so popular. Thirty participants are from Jemez Pueblo.
Additionally, of the 23 people who served on all of the crews this summer, 12 say they are pursuing, or plan to pursue, a career in natural resource management.
Kyla Magdalena had a similar experience. She expected to go to work straight out of high school. Then she participated in the Jemez Pueblo summer Youth Corps program in 2022. She fell in love with tree plot planting. She reviewed an area of trees that were planted after a large fire in 2018 to see which ones actually continued to grow.
“We would separate and go find the tree plot plantings through the map, measur[ing] distances like a couple of feet around and see, like what survived the fire or not,” she says. “It was kind of like a scavenger hunt because they would just give you the map and the coordinates.”
Magdalena grew up frequently seeing fires burn in her pueblo every summer. She said it almost took away the land she loved.
“At night, you could see the big fire glowing, and it was pretty scary because the fires seemed to be in cultural lands,” she says. “We use [them] for indigenous purposes. So it was pretty scary because we thought we might lose that.”
Now, she wants to study geographic information systems so she can help in similar scenarios.
“That [program] really inspired me,” she says. “I plan to get my degree and come back to the community and help out with land. … There's so much you can do for your own community with just natural resources. Even if it's just like with land, it can help you in so many ways.”
Stewart said Magdalena is not the only one.
“[I’ll be] talking to folks and [they say], ‘I want to gain this experience so that I can bring this back to the tribe,’” she says. “That's something that I've heard from multiple, multiple people where it's like, ‘In the end, I want to give back.’”
These young people are paramount to Galvan, as he says federal agencies don’t always get around to projects in the pueblo or they are short-staffed. But he emphasizes that everyone from Jemez Pueblo is a lifetime member.
He gives them all the same advice: “Go out and explore the world and see what's out there and get your education, but do come back again to help our people, our community, our landscape.”
Galvan hopes that more Indigenous people will use their knowledge of the land to help preserve it for years to come.
“That's what it comes down [to], what are we leaving for our future generations?” he says. “It's great to have these kids that are interested right now, hopefully we can direct them to become foresters again or hydrologists or any type of ‘ologist’ again.”
The Forest Stewards Youth Corps summer program ended recently. The fall program will begin later this month and run until mid-November.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.