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USFS AmeriCorps ~ doing their best despite pandemic

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

The Appalachian Forest National Heritage Area [AFNHA], in West Virginia and parts of Maryland, focuses on conservation, tourism and maintenance of the historic cultural heritage of the communities and forests within its purview.

Each year, AFNHA seeks like-minded individuals to work in those communities as AmeriCorps volunteers. Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Forest Service- Marlinton Ranger District gained three volunteers to help with ongoing and new projects on the Monongehela National Forest.

Julie Derringer is working on restoration and outreach; Hannah Scrafford is focused on recreation and the trails department; and Emily Culp is continuing efforts with the Mon Forest Towns partnership.

The three AmeriCorps volunteers are all college graduates with varying degrees in science, forestry and natural resources. They were each attracted to the Forest Service positions because they were seeking ways to utilize their skills and to spread awareness about conservation.

“I have worked in conservation in forestry and agriculture, so it was just time to try a new interest,” Scrafford said. “I was in international agriculture and rural development, but I also did food forestry, things like that.”

Scrafford is originally from upstate New York. She was finishing a job in Indiana, working for the non-profit Community Gardens, when she found the AFNHA posting.

Derringer, a Michigan native, wanted a job closer to her family, which recently moved to North Carolina.

“I’m really grateful I found this program because in school I majored in Anthropology and Ecology,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in combining those two things and connecting people and local cultures to nature. I like the dual mission, and I’m able to use skills that I learned in undergrad. I’m able to flex my science skills and my cultural outreach skills – that’s why I really like it.”

Before the pandemic, Culp was teaching environmental education in Alabama, but once schools switched to virtual learning, she sought a new position.

“I was just trying to find a position in my field,” she said. “I studied natural resources in college, so it seemed like serving as an AmeriCorps for the Forest Service would be the perfect sort of leg up that I would need to get a job in this field.”

While their work has been hindered by the pandemic, the trio continues to find ways to serve the Forest Service and the communities they were assigned.

“A large part of my position is to go into the schools and work with school kids, and that’s been severely compromised,” Derringer admitted. “I haven’t really done much at all, unfortunately. I did get permission from the Forest Service, AFNHA and Marlinton Middle School to, hopefully, go in to teach some lessons – with huge precautions – now that school is back to in-person.”

Derringer has been able to focus on a research project she will present as part of her final project at the end of her volunteer term. She also plans to stay in Marlinton for another year as an AmeriCorps.

Scrafford’s focus is on the trails within the forest. She is currently working on trailhead signs and hopes to get out to the trails when warmer weather arrives.

I was supposed to work with volunteer groups on the tread work on the trails,” she said. “Hopefully we still can.”

The Mon Forest Towns partnership has Culp working with four towns in three counties which requires her to be on Zoom meetings most of the time.

“I work specifically with the southern towns, so Richwood, Marlinton, White Sulphur Springs and Cowen,” she said. “The majority of my life right now takes place over Zoom. I’m definitely bummed that I can’t do a lot of actual community outreach.”

Regardless of how Culp is working with the communities, she is seeing some progress being made with the partnership, which is a way for towns within the Mon Forest to rebrand and attract even more visitors with their connections to the forest.

“It’s been great,” she said. “I think we’ve had a lot of recent movement with the partnership, and I’ve been able to see all of that occur. It’s been really great and rewarding.”

Culp hopes to be able to do more outreach in the communities and schools later this year – if social distancing guidelines allow.

“I want to do environmental education outreach,” she said. “I would love to be able to go into the schools and do some teaching. I would also like to get students outdoors, if possible, and go for hikes.”

Even with the setbacks and tight restrictions, the three AmeriCorps volunteers have been able to make some progress in the communities and are enjoying their time in the Mountain State.

“The contrast is really the mountains,” Scrafford said. “They’re very similar to where I’m from, except bigger. So this feels more like coming home.”

“West Virginia has been an amazing place to live,” Culp added. “The recreation opportunities here are incredible. I love it.”
For more information on Appalachian Forest National Heritage Area, visit appalachianforestnha.org

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