“This is the biggest field experience I’ve ever had in my life” said Travis Johnson as he hauled load after load of lumber down the steep stairs to the trail maintenance site. “I’ve done a few things here and there but nothing that helps so many people like this.” While most young adults wouldn’t be thrilled about spending hours digging up rotted steps, hauling 6×6 pressure treated lumber down a mountain side, or pounding away with a sledge hammer doing trail maintenance, that’s just what Oconaluftee Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center (OJCCCC) student Johnson felt about the major trail restoration project. As a trail boss in the OJCCCC Forestry Conservation and Firefighting Program, Johnson works hard to ensure everything is going according to plan.
At 411 feet, the drop of Upper Whitewater Falls is truly incredible but Brian Browning, Assistant Fire Management Officer- Trails, for the Nantahala NF Nantahala RD planned a major overhaul to improve the visitor experience. “The Foothills Trail below the Whitewater Falls parking area has many steps that have been built over the years. Many of these steps are in bad condition and are a hazard, so many of these steps will be torn out and replaced with new ones” Browning said. With a budget of just over $6,000 and 456 steps to be replaced Browning turned to the hardworking students at OJCCCC for assistance. Each work day, Forestry Instructor Darrell McDaniels and worked side by side with students to ensure they learned proper trail construction techniques, maintenance equipment, and principles of recreational management. “Our students need over 200 skills to complete the Forestry Conservation and Firefighting Program. Understanding Natural Resources Management is a large part of that” says McDaniels.
“Working with the Nantahala RD gave us a real living ‘classroom’ that helps the students, the District, and the local community” says Business Community Liaison for OJCCCC Holly Krake. “Part of our mission as a Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center is to be active stewards of place through conservation and natural resource protection. It not just something we say- it’s who we are”. Oconaluftee strives to be a place where young adults without a high school diploma, job training, or driver’s license can earn the training and education they need to help them succeed in today’s workforce. Working with multiple community partners/projects, like Whitewater Falls, transforms career training into the hands-on, experiential learning it can be. Job Corps is a no-cost education and vocational training program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor that helps young people ages 16 through 24 improve the quality of their lives through vocational and academic training. The Oconaluftee Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center is operated by the US Forest Service.