They say everything is big in Texas, but when it comes to forests, West Virginia can run circles around the Lone Star State.
Austin, Texas native Micahel Zsembik is learning that first-hand as the United States Forest Service Vets Work AmeriCorps, stationed with the Marlinton Ranger District.
Zsembik came to Marlinton in March as the ecological restoration coordinator and was able to settle in one week before the state enforced partial shutdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite the shutdown, Zsembik was able to work, largely because he spent most of his time in the field in the Monongahela National Forest.
“What I do is work on the legacy mines that haven’t been mined since the sixties,” he said. “When they were done with the coal mines, coal companies planted red pine which is a non-native species – which is fine, it’s not invasive – but, it’s not native. So, what we’re going to do – we go down and knock down all the red pine and then replant northern hardwoods – maple, black cherry, poplar – and red spruce in it.”
This is an ongoing project at the Forest Service and Zsembik is continuing the work set forth by former AmeriCorps volunteers.
“Last year at Sharp’s Knob, our tract was eighty acres, and we were able to get almost forty-thousand saplings in an eighty acre tract,” he said. “Obviously, you’re going to have some that don’t make it, but I’ve been up there this year, and they’re looking pretty good.”
Along with the restoration project, Zsembik has helped with several community projects, including landscaping at the Discovery Junction and the Marlinton community garden.
“The garden across from Lucy’s – that’s a part of my project,” he said. “Luckily, I had Steve White who does the Farmers Market at Snowshoe. He, Father Arthur and I were the ones who worked in there – with help from other people – to get the ground tilled and the fence up and maintain it.”
Zsembik is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, and comes from a long line of military men.
“I come from a military family,” he said. “My dad did twenty-three years in the Army. As a boy, I was, for sure, interested in joining the military.”
Originally stationed in Newport News, Virginia, Zsembik worked on an aircraft carrier which was going through an overhaul – which takes place every 25 years.
“It’s a five year process,” he explained. “I was there the last year and then we were reassigned to San Diego [California]. We sailed around South America because we couldn’t fit through Panama. So I got to see a few things and then got stationed in San Diego for the second half of my enlistment.”
When he left the Navy, Zsembik returned to Texas and found a job as a skilled laborer, but he wasn’t happy. He set a goal to find something new. He had a degree in Environmental Science and Policy, so he decided to either find a position in the environmental field or teach English overseas.
With the help of Indeed – an employment website – Zsembik found the VetWorks AmeriCorps position. He was originally hired for a position in Oregon, but when it fell through, he selected West Virginia.
“I picked it the same day I found it,” he said.
Since taking the position, Zsembik has found a love for the state and Pocahontas County.
“It is a secret nobody really knows much about it,” he said. “Even being from Texas and a similar culture. All I had in my mind [about West Virginia] was stereotypes. I’m going to tell everyone that the stereotypes are true so they don’t ruin this place.
“That’s what happened to my hometown.”
While most AmeriCorps positions usually last nine months to a year, Zsembik will be staying on until November 2021 to continue his work with the Forest Service.
“They offered for me to stay another year because I didn’t get the full experience because of coronavirus,” he said. “It’s been a struggle, but it’s a good struggle. So, I’ll be here until next November for another field season. I’m supposed to be coordinating with another district, another AmeriCorps. We’re going to do some research on restoration and salamander habitat, things like that, which is really cool.”
Zsembik is excited to continue his work with the Forest Service, as well as stay in the area longer because he has enjoyed his time here so far.
“I really enjoy it,” he said. “A lot of people in the environmental field have different motivations for getting into stewardship. Everybody has their own reason why they’re here. For me, it’s special. We’ve been gifted a beautiful garden – a beautiful planet – and we have a duty to care for it.
“The landscapes are incredible,” he continued, speaking of Pocahontas County. “I wish summer was a bit longer – being from Texas – but the mountains, seeing them every day, I’m out in the field. I’m just in awe. It’s just incredible. Yesterday I saw my first owl flying through the forest and that was great. It’s been pretty spectacular.”
Being at the Forest Service specifically has added to Zsembik’s environmental science education in ways he never expected.
“Knowing that we’re all there for the same mission is a big thing, and I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from a lot of people,” he said. “The people at the Forest Service here in the Marlinton district are phenomenal. They all really enjoy what they’re doing. They look forward to coming to work. They’re skilled, and it’s a very pleasant environment.
“Ranger Cindy Sandeno is phenomenal,” he added. “You couldn’t ask for a better leader. Not only that, but somebody that can inspire you and you can look up to. Somebody that’s walking the walk, and there’s no ulterior motives for her. It makes you appreciate what people are out there doing – the unsung people making an impact.”
Being in the mountains has been especially nice for Zsembik on a personal level and has helped him feel a connection with his ancestors.
“My family came over here a hundred years ago from the mountains in Slovakia, so I feel like I’m connecting on a deeper level to my ancestors because they came from a mountainous region. Running up and down the mountains – I feel at home here.”
Once his time in Pocahontas County is over, Zsembik plans to either further his education or find a full-time position in the environmental field.
“I’m actually applying for schools overseas,” he said. “The country my great-grandparents came from. It’s either I’m going to go to school or I’m going to get some full-time employment, but I don’t really know where that path will lead. We’ll see. I do like The Mon.”