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Indian Youth Service Corps making a difference

Dedicated to conservation and community service on the Cherokee National Forest

Andrea Baquerizo
Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee
November 24, 2023

Indian Youth Service Corps students and adults pose for group picture.
United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians during their orientation day on the Cherokee National Forest. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrea Baquerizo)

This summer, individuals from the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB) came together as part of the Indian Youth Service Corps crew to contribute their efforts to preserve and maintain the beauty of the Cherokee National Forest. Their mission? To engage in various projects aimed at connecting with their ancestral homeland.

“Working on the Cherokee National Forest has been a transformative experience for all of us,” said Colton Bunch who is a tribal member of UKB and led the crew. “We’ve not only made a positive impact on the environment but also formed lasting bonds within our crew and with the local community. This experience will stay with us for a lifetime.”

Their work is a remarkable display of dedication to conservation and community service. They recently wrapped up their project in the heart of the Cherokee National Forest, leaving behind a legacy of environmental stewardship and camaraderie.

“The UKB Indian Youth Service Corps crew has been an invaluable partner in our conservation efforts. Their dedication and passion for the environment are inspiring, and we look forward to future collaborations,” said Cherokee National Forest Supervisor Mike Wright.

Fostering the Next Generation of Public Land Stewards

Under the summer sun, these determined crewmembers worked to address critical issues facing the forest and learn more about their ancestral homelands. They conducted archaeological surveys, removed non-native invasive species, maintained trails, identified invasive species and engaged in a clean-up at the Ocoee Whitewater Center.

Students gaze at the iconic Council Spring.
United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians at Council Spring at Red Clay State Historic Park. The spring is considered sacred to all Cherokee Tribes. (USDA Forest Service photo by Danielle Shelton)

One of their biggest achievements is the restoration of the iconic Council Spring, also known as the Blue Hole Spring because of its distinctive color; this limestone spring is considered sacred to all Cherokee Nations. Located in Red Clay State Historic Park, the spring received its name because it provided water during tribal council meetings. Only members of the Cherokee Tribe are permitted to swim in the Blue Hole, which made this an exciting opportunity for the UKB youth crew.

“Without their work, we wouldn’t be able to see the spring’s beautiful blue color that it’s known for. I couldn’t think of a better group to do this important work,” said Erin Medley, park manager for the Red Clay State Historic Park.

The crew’s projects helped protect the natural ecosystems and maintained important Tribal heritage sites. These initiatives not only raised awareness about the importance of forest conservation but also fostered a deeper connection between the crew, the forest and the people it serves.

“The group helped our Silviculture shop on the Tellico Ranger District accomplish work that we couldn’t have done on our own,” said Hollister Hurt, prescription forester, Cherokee National Forest. “We were able to get done 10 acres of reforestation release work and 10 acres of hack and squirt stand improvement. I’m quite impressed with their hard work and professionalism.”

Although the crew packed up their tools and bid farewell to the Cherokee National Forest, their legacy of conservation and community engagement endures. They left a lasting impact on the forest and serve as a testament to the power of youth-led environmental initiatives.

About the Indian Youth Service Corps Program

In October of this year, the USDA Forest Service signed a new bi-regional agreement with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, which ushers in an unprecedented opportunity to partner on priorities across the Southern and Eastern regions, co-manage risks, share resources, learn from each other and build capacity to improve forest conditions.

The idea behind the agreement is simple: Both nature and ancestral homelands transcend jurisdictional boundaries, and so should our stewardship of it. Closely partnering with Tribes in the management of Forest Service lands is one example of our commitment to co-stewardship and a core value of interdependence.

Students stand in front of renovated log cabin with historical significance.
United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians at New Echota State Historic Site in Georgia. The site once was the capital of the Cherokee Nation and the beginning of the Trail of Tears, which was the path used for the forcible removal of more than 16,000 Cherokee, black slaves and other Tribes from their homelands (in northwest Georgia and adjacent Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina) to Oklahoma in 1838 and 1839. (USDA Forest Service photo by Danielle Shelton)

As part of this collaboration, the Indian Youth Service Corps program will support two, four-week engagements during the next four years: one four-week session on the Cherokee National Forest, and one four-week session on Shawnee National Forest. Through this program, we want to share resources, engage in co-stewardship and expose young adults to careers and professional pathways within natural and cultural resource conservation.

“These young adults will receive hands-on training in a variety of career fields while earning a stipend or wage,” said Danielle Shelton, heritage program manager, Cherokee National Forest. “The goal is to develop a generation of Indian youth who have the skills and experiences needed to compete in today’s job market.”