POPO AGIE WILDERNESS, Wyo. — Someday, perhaps when Brittany McRae is a successful physical therapist, she will find a friend or family member and convince him or her to lug a backpack deep into this part of the Wind River Mountains.
After several hours of hiking, and maybe a little complaining on the steep sections, she’ll stop the person, not in front of a lake or a vista, but in front of a footbridge. And she’ll be able to say, “I built that.”
McRae and seven other Wyoming Conservation Corps members finished the bridge Sunday after several 10-hour-plus days of replacing the decrepit wooden planks.
The hiking bridge is one of several projects Conservation Corps members will tackle this summer.
Founded in 2007
The Laramie-based Wyoming Conservation Corps was founded in 2007 by the state Legislature to provide students and young adults in Wyoming with experience in natural resource and environmental conservation career fields. It mimics older programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s and the Youth Conservation Corps of the 1970s. The Wyoming program is under the auspices of the University of Wyoming at the William D. Ruckelshaus Institute and Otto Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources.
The Wyoming Conservation Corps is supported by partnerships with organizations spanning state and federal land management agencies to nonprofits and private industry.
Like their counterparts in neighboring states, participants receive a living stipend and spend their summers across the state working on projects in 10-day increments, called a hitch, with a four-day rest period, said Kendall Peacock of the Conservation Corps. Each project is created with a partner, such as the U.S. Forest Service, and includes ways for workers to learn about and experience Wyoming.
There are six groups working across the state, and each will finish six projects. This year the Wyoming Conservation Corps will complete more than 30,000 hours worth of work, Peacock said.
Projects this summer range from mountain pine beetle mitigation to building mountain bike trails to helping flood victims.
Many of those who sign up for the corps are college students, although it isn’t a requirement. Students can receive an upper-division credit for their work, Peacock said. There are no degree requirements for participants.
Allison Lewis, 19, is studying physiology at the University of Wyoming. She held a similar job last summer but was intrigued by the Conservation Corps’ “perks,” which include becoming chainsaw-certified.
While a Conservation Corps job might not translate into a career, Lewis likes the physical labor and the opportunity to learn new things, such as how to build a bridge.
The outdoor component appealed to Kelli Fonder, 19. The pre-nursing major simply didn’t want to be inside all day. Physical labor instills a strong work ethic, she said. Plus, she likes being able to see what her work creates, such as a bridge, a trail or a fence.
Sam Murray, 21, signed up for his second year this summer.
“It’s nice to go to bed tired and get up and do it all over again,” he said. “Use your body while you still can.”
Murray is a history education major.
Both and he and Fonder said their favorite hitch was building the bridge, because it was so remote. While neither of them will probably build bridges in their future careers, both think they’ve learned valuable work lessons, especially people skills.
Fonder said living in a campsite and working 10-hour days teaches you to get along with all types of personalities. It’s also helped her break out of her shyness.
McRae heard about the Conservation Corps through a friend who performed work in 2010. The kinesiology major saw it as a way to learn new skills.
“I can fell a tree,” she said.
And also get in her workouts while working.
McRae is a crew leader, which required a special class in January on leadership and learning about the projects. She and the other crew leader are also in charge of making breakfast each morning, usually by 6:30, and rousing the rest of the team for work.
Each assignment has been different and has had its own physical and mental challenges, McRae said. At Guernsey they cut down beetle-killed trees. Near Pinedale they built trails and worked on the Jonah natural gas field, putting in bird ramps and cattle troughs. At Glendo they built mountain bike trails, and at Piedmont they installed a handicapped-accessible trail around the charcoal kilns.
But her favorite was the bridge. She liked seeing the project through. It also gave the crew a chance to grow even closer.
Members spent time wielding hatchets and sledgehammers and saws while fighting mosquitoes side by side. They know Lewis likes her marshmallows burnt and Murray goes to bed early — really early.
These are the stories McRae will tell when she comes back years from now to see the bridge.