Most days, Ira Everett leaves his home in Tesuque Pueblo by 7 a.m. Around two hours later, he’s deep in the grasslands and mountains of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a circular depression outside Los Alamos created by a volcanic eruption over a million years ago.
Despite the long drive — about four hours round trip — Everett said it’s worth it.
“Some day, if I have kids, I would love to bring my kids out here and be like, ‘Oh, I worked here.’ … That’s what I look forward to. It makes me get up every day,” he said.
Everett, 22, is a member of a Youth Conservation Corps crew conducting restoration and preservation work in the Valles Caldera. The program is run by Santa Fe-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians, which has received an annual grant from the Youth Conservation Corps program to hire a crew since 2014, said Reid Whittlesey, the group’s acting restoration director.
The organization received around $75,000 for this year’s crew, he added.
Some of WildEarth Guardians’ grant programs recently were compromised by a recent alleged embezzlement scheme involving a former employee and a contractor who are now being investigated by the FBI. But Whittlesey said the YCC program wasn’t affected because money for it goes directly to wages for young people.
Crew members are paid $11 an hour and the two crew leaders earn $13.
The crew does a range of work, including clearing roads and trails of debris; completing erosion control projects; removing fences to help wildlife; and building fences in certain areas to prevent overgrazing. The crew also has planted trees along streams and monitored the health of streams and fish populations, Whittlesey said.
Harm to the land caused by a number of factors such as overgrazing, the logging industry and wildfires is why restoration work in the caldera is important, he said.
In addition to working in the Valles Caldera, WildEarth Guardians’ YCC program has done restoration projects in other areas, such as the Santa Fe National Forest and the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque.
And the organization has a contingent of restoration staff — not affiliated with the YCC — working seasonally in the Valles Caldera. Currently, Whittlesey said, they’re building a fence along the perimeter.
Samuel Hena, field supervisor for WildEarth Guardians’ YCC program, said the permitted age range for crew participants is 15 to 25. The group typically works 40 hours a week from April to November. This year’s crew has 10 workers, nine of whom are Native American — a common occurrence.
“It’s good to have them up here because this is all traditionally Native American land,” Hena said, gesturing toward the vast grasslands of the national preserve and blue-tinted mountains in the distance. Indigenous crew members also bring helpful ecological knowledge, he said, such as being able to identify many of the plants in the Valles Caldera.
Another benefit for crew members is an opportunity to earn funds for college. In addition to their wages, they can receive a $1,500 scholarship from YCC after working the equivalent of a year on the crew.
Whittlesey said he’s thrilled to see YCC workers use the money for higher education, especially when they pursue a degree related to natural resources.
“I’m trying to empower them to be able to effect the changes that their generation will need to make upon the landscape.” he said. “… Seeing them start to take that initiative, it’s just extremely gratifying.”
For Everett, in his second season with the crew, maintaining a natural area like the Valles Caldera is what drew him to the program.
“I like to come out here and do my best and do what I can physically to keep this beautiful landscape preserved for our youth and future people,” he said, wiping sweat away as he took a break from tearing down a fence leading up a steep incline.
Above, the rest of the crew was making steady progress — inching its way up to the end of the fencing.
Makayla Madalena, a crew leader, said it’s been exciting to see the effect the group has had on the land. In particular, Madalena, 23, has seen that impact in Jaramillo — a valley in the caldera — where the crew planted willows in nine fenced-in “exclosures,” structures meant to keep out animals like elk and cows and prevent overgrazing of vegetation in those areas.
“Seeing the fish population grow, seeing more animals being attracted to those certain places is pretty cool,” said Madalena, who is in her fourth year with the YCC program.
Whittlesey said the exclosures help the willows and other vegetation thrive. This allows the trees to provide shade for the stream, which cools the water and helps the fish population, he said. In addition, the willows provide the caldera with green vegetation when many of the trees in the preserve remain bare from fires that have swept through the area.
While Whittlesey said putting up exclosures and planting trees — along with other tasks the YCC crew does — can be monotonous, it pays off.
“It takes a lot of work, a lot of time, a lot of energy,” he said. “But once I have the opportunity to go back and see it, it’s such a gratifying experience to be able to see how positively the stream and the surrounding landscape was impacted.”
Making that difference on the land can lead to some tiring days, Everett said, pointing to a steep mountain he said the crew climbed recently. He explained that they went up and around the peak, clearing the trail of debris with chain saws. The crew walked about 9 miles that day, he said.
“I was exhausted,” Everett admitted. “I couldn’t wait to go home, take a shower and just pass out.”
But he said he takes pride in completing these kinds of difficult tasks. “I sit there and it’s like, ‘I really just did that.’ ”
That kind of hard work is what keeps Troy Tafoya, another crew leader who also works as a firefighter, coming back. Tafoya, 24, has participated in the program for the past three years, and he said he enjoys the physicality of the job.
But he also said the work is meaningful because he gets to preserve and spend time in a special ecosystem.
“It makes it safe for future generations to come over here and see how beautiful the land is,” he said. “I fell in love with the land and the scenery out here, so I like being out here everyday. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.”
If you go
The Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains is open for summer hours from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and is allowing vehicle entry into its backcountry areas.
Access requires a permit, which is handed out on a first-come, first-served basis at the visitors center near the entrance. There is a limit of 35 vehicles a day in the preserve, although anyone can walk or bike into the backcountry without a permit.