For 30 hours a week during July and August, nine teen-agers lugged lopping shears, weed whackers, shovels and pitchforks into the woods at Savage Park where the Wincopin Neck Trail and Middle Patuxent Rivermeet.
These Paul Bunyans of the Patuxent cleared trails and performed other environmental tasks coordinated by the Department of Natural Resources' Maryland Conservation Corps (MCC) and the county's Department of Recreation and Parks. They received $4.25 an hour.
"We have two main goals," MCC director Jonathan Underwood said. "We want to teach young people ages 14 to 21 about the work ethic -- how to get a job, how to get to work on time, when to take breaks. We also need them to do environmental projects that will help the Chesapeake Bay. The conservation corps was established by the state seven years ago as one of 11 initiatives to restore the bay."
Names of interested local students are provided by the Howard County Employment and Training Center.
"Many kids come from economically disadvantaged families; others may have a learning disability," Underwood said. Throughout the state, 400 young people operated at 40 sites in 18 18 counties.
"The program is unique because it provides an outdoor classroom situation," said Henry Gill, area coordinator for the county's conservation corps. The science and biology teacher works during the winter at Greenspring Middle School in Baltimore and has spent his summers with MCC for seven years.
"The young people understand firsthand the value of protecting our natural resources," he said. "Theyare ambassadors of the environmental program."
After six weeks' work by the corps, Savage Park is a better place to visit. Overgrown brush no longer exists along its trails; wooden chips line the paths and trails to prevent erosion of the soil; and log steps along a hillside make walking easier and hinder erosion.
"My goal was to leave the park looking a lot better than it did before we arrived," said Chris Richmond, crew chief for the MCC.
Every morning, Richmond picked up members of his crew and drove to the Savage Park recreation center to gather whatever tools were needed for that day. Then it was onto the work site, where Richmond would oversee the various projects -- always mindful of such potential learning experiences as talking about the effects of erosion or testing the river water for pollution.
"It's fun hearing what they think about the environment," Richmond said, adding he'd always wanted a job in the conservation field andjumped at the chance for summer employment with the MCC.
Two weeks ago, during its first rainy day of the summer, the team sat beneatha covered area at the recreation center in Savage. It was too wet totrudge in the woods, so the young men sat on benches reading a pamphlet containing information that included tree identification and geographic facts about the bay.
Illustrations of animals and a record sheet for recognizing various insects, birds and plants provided the young workers other opportunities to learn and talk about the experiences they had shared over the previous six weeks.
"I learned a lotabout erosion when we built the steps and chipped in some of the paths," said Alansan Sesay, 15, an 11th-grader at Oakland Mills. "We dugholes, put the logs down and got the rocks from the creek."
Carlando Love, 15, a 10th-grader at Atholton, admitted that shoveling piles of wood chips from truck to trail wasn't fun, but said he was happywhen the project was finished because of a "sense of accomplishment."
"When my kids come along, I want the planet to be clean," said Love, who does his part by "picking up trash and collecting cans."
Two brothers, Mike and Richard Sanders, both students at Howard High School, didn't seem to mind the hard work. Richard, 17, is a 10th-grader; Mike, 18, is in the 12th grade. Mike has worked for MCC for two consecutive years; this has been Richard's first experience with the group.
"I think that we should take care of the environment," Mikesaid. "I would like to see people keep the bay and stuff clean."
One adventure the students kept mentioning was their trip on the Mildred Belle, an historic Chesapeake Bay workboat. The young men steeredthe ship, hauled cargo aboard using the boom and cargo net, tested the waters with modern scientific equipment, broadcast a weather report over the radio and observed the factories, shipping, natural resources and ecosystems of the Chesapeake Bay.
"While on the boat, I saw a lot of things that were polluting the bay," Phil Sonnenberg said.The 15-year-old Hammond High 11th-grader has worked two summers at MCC because "I need money."
Although earning a paycheck seemed to be of primary importance to the young men, tangible rewards like an awareness for safeguarding the environment will probably have a more far-reaching effect.
"Pollution makes me mad, but I can do a little about it, like trying to shut off lights and water when not using them," Phil said. "But we can accomplish more if everyone is working together."
"And when I get older, I can bring my kids up here to the park and say, 'Hey, I helped build that,' " chimed in Alansan Sesay.