Armed with chainsaws and herbicide, an 11-member AmeriCorps team takes on a stubborn, invasive plant species that is threatening the prairie at Whetstone Creek Conservation Area just north of Williamsburg.
Decked out in protective head and eye gear and wearing an orange-colored, chaps-like, leg protectant, Jade Knapke, 20, cuts down an invasive autumn olive tree at Whetstone on Thursday and Ben Udell, 18, follows behind her, spraying the stump with herbicide so it won't grow back. Knapke, from Indianapolis, and Udell, from Keisterstown, Md., are a long way from home. They joined nine other young adults from around the country to travel to central Missouri with the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). The team arrived March 15 and will remain in the area until May 6, spending much of its time working at Whetstone. The group will also travel to other areas in Callaway and Boone counties to do various volunteer and environmental work.
John George, natural history biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, applied to AmeriCorps, requesting a team be sent to the area. About once a year, an AmeriCorps team will travel to this part of the state for environmental work. George said the team's efforts about triple the amount of work the MDC can accomplish in a given season and amount to about 20 more acres of prairie land being planted.
"We've lost so many (prairies) over the years," he said. "Our primary focus is trying to plant more acres to prairie."
Whetstone, which consists of almost 5,200 acres, is used for fishing, hunting and nature walks. It also has a shooting range. George said having an NCCC team provide the labor needed to do burns, cut down unwanted trees, kill invasive species, remove unwanted fences and build nesting boxes for various species helps MDC accomplish work it wouldn't have the funds to do otherwise. He explained that prairie survival is important for all Missouri citizens.
"(The volunteers are) helping to ensure a lot of prairie species - both plant and animal - will be around for future generations," he said. "Nature makes all of our lives richer."
Eric Niemeyer, MDC resource aide, was at Whetstone with NCCC members Thursday, helping the crew. Since the weather was not conducive for burning, Niemeyer said the crew was going to focus on chopping down autumn olive trees that are "detrimental" to Whetstone, an important area for deer, quail, turkey and rabbit hunting during the seasons. The autumn olive, he explains, spreads wildly and takes over native prairie grasses.
Mary Schaefer, 25, joined the AmeriCorps after graduating from college. From Eden, N.Y., Schaefer said she likes the traveling and team aspects of NCCC. Sean Kerr, 23, agrees, saying he decided to join AmeriCorps rather than the Peace Corps because of the team-based focus of the program. Kerr, from Woodbridge, Va., also joined after graduating from college, a decision he doesn't regret.
"I've loved every single moment of it," Kerr said. "You get to meet some amazing people."
Na Bierdeman, 23, from Grand Rapids, Mich., has worked on NCCC projects in other parts of the country and said she likes working in rural areas like Williamsburg.
"I really enjoy it, because it's really a slower-paced life," Bierdeman said.
Working on NCCC teaches her skills she might not have had the opportunity to learn anywhere else, Bierdeman explains, referring to how "awesome" it is she can now use a chainsaw.
"It's extremely empowering," she said. "This really is an extension of our education. We're learning things here we would have never learned in the classroom."