Blazing trails: SCA Metroparks Trail Corps program involves youth in parks conservation

Growing up in Rocky River, Kate White has fond memories of having the Cleveland Metroparks’ Rocky River Reservation be her own back yard—her 5,600-acre back yard that winds along the Rocky River stocked with steelhead trout, featuring a gorge and massive shale cliffs, floodplain forests, meadows, and wetlands adorned with willow, sycamore, and cottonwood trees.

Student Conservation Association (SCA) Crew Leader Kate WhiteThe Rocky River Reservation is where White fell in love with nature and being outdoors. “My brother and I played in the Rocky River, played with the rocks we’d find, and hiked [the reservation],” she recalls.

Those childhood experiences inspired the journalism and environmental studies major at Cleveland State University to take an interest in outdoor, naturalist jobs. “I’ve always been super interested in working for the Metroparks,” the Tremont resident says.

So, when she heard about the opportunity to join the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and spend this past summer working at the Cleveland Metroparks as a crew leader, White jumped at the chance.

White worked with a other young adult SCA members and eight high school students who spent the summer working under Metroparks trails development manager Ralph Protano to build trails and restore natural habitats in the park system while exploring green career opportunities.

Having just completed its second year, the SCA Cleveland Metroparks Trail Corps program teaches participants how to work as members of a diverse team of peers; gain knowledge of public land resources, environmental issues, and career readiness skills; increase understanding of environmental and trail restoration techniques; acquire experience in public service and outdoor recreation; and develop professional skills through teambuilding and leadership activities.

Potrano says plans for a third year are already underway.

The Cleveland Metroparks has long made preservation of the region’s natural forests, the protection of essential wildlife habitats, and the importance of connecting people to nature priorities in its mission as it protects nearly 24,000 acres of land in 18 reservations in 48 communities across six counties and six watersheds.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was used in the Park District to build roads, trails, picnic areas and more during the Great Depression such as here at the Quarry Picnic ground – Euclid Creek.Protano says the Metroparks’ history of service-based conservation work goes back as far as the Great Depression, when the parks system began working with the Civilian Conservation Corps to build roads, trails, picnic areas, and work on other projects, and continues today to work with the Conservation Corps Network.  

Cleveland Metroparks has been committed to this type of conservation work through its history," he says. "Most of this stemmed pre-World War II from the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress movements.”​​​​​​​

Protano says the SCA program takes the conservation mission a step further by teaching a diverse group of young people about the importance of conservation and restoration of parks, public land, and urban green spaces.

“In more recent years we’ve brought diversity and inner-city youth empowerment to our mission,” he says. “We bring these kids from all over Cleveland and pay them a living wage. We look at it as workforce development and outreach opportunities on our end.”

As trails development manager, Protano oversees the creation of new trails using both sustainable designs and a positive environmental ethic. He has a master’s degree in natural resources from Virginia Tech. The New Jersey native was a SCA member with California, Maine, and New Hampshire, as well as served as a technician with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

“I lived out of my car and just drove up and down the trail,” he recalls of his time on the Appalachian Trail. He came to the Cleveland Metroparks 10 years ago with his wife, who is from Cleveland, and got involved once again with the SCA—this time as an educator.

A summer to remember
This summer, White and her co-crew leader worked alongside the high school students—educating them and supervising them while working with them on assigned projects.

SCA Cleveland Metroparks Trail Corps program team members, high school students who build and preserve trails.“Every morning we’d get the kids together and talk to them about the tools, take orders from the [trails] crew,” she says, adding that they spent most of the season at the West Creek Reservation in Parma. “The majority of the time we were doing trail restoration. We would work with the seasonal crew on building drainage ditches for better water management and to prevent erosion.”

White says the team helped build an entirely new trail at West Creek as well. “The contractor came in and did a rough cut and we’d make it look natural again by building the trail up with leaves and twigs,” she explains. “We promoted natural vegetation to grow, and in a couple of places we seeded and transplanted. The contractor really wiped out everything.”

Other times the group would focus on habitat conservation efforts or worked with rock placements at North Chagrin Reservation in Willoughby Hills.

“They had a big hand in the whole West Creek Reservation,” says Protano. “The crew leaders started in early June and the high school kids came at the end of June.”

White says as a team leader, she would give environmental and conservation lessons, as well as work on Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) training.

Overall, White says the experience only fueled her interest in working for the Metroparks or in conservation. “It was an amazing summer, and the kids loved it—I still talk to them,” she says. “It changed their perspective on green space, and it was awesome to see that change in them. It was a great experience and I hope I get to do it again.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.