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Kenny Solcum

Clayton County Conservation


When I get the question, “how does one become a naturalist,” I usually say “I’ll let you know when I find out.” But for a more serious answer, I can actually point to one singular moment. 

The year is 2009, my senior year of college is drawing to a close, and I am having a panic attack trying to figure out what I want to do with life after education. A close friend reached out to me from his adopted home in the Northern Rockies, and suggested I try a season of volunteer service with the Montana Conservation Corps (MCC), an Americorps program dedicated to getting young people involved with the upkeep of public lands.

The idea behind the MCC, or any of the various conservation corps operating around the nation, is an old one. Its roots lie in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the legendary program designed to put young people back to work coming out of the Great Depression. CCC members worked incredibly hard, for little pay, building hundreds of miles of hiking trails, planting millions of trees, repairing bridges and dams… the list goes on and on. 

Their legacy remains today, here in Iowa, in structures at Backbone State Park and Bixby Preserve. Less visible, but arguably more important, is the impact it had on the hearts and minds of the young people who served in the unique program.
It is an impact to which I can relate. 

When I joined the MCC, I had no real idea of what I wanted to do. But after spending six months working ten hour days, sleeping in a tent, sweating and struggling my way through challenging work in rugged terrain, I found an inner peace unlike anything I’d experienced before. I discovered that by working on public land, I connected with it in a way I never could otherwise.  It may sound counterintuitive, but going home each day sweaty and tired made me love the land far more than I could had I simply explored it on a hike or backpacking trip. 

Suddenly, my life had direction.

Of course, gaining experience in the field didn’t hurt either. The experience enabled me to leverage that love and passion into a career working with the outdoors. It is precisely these elements – experience, both emotional and professional – that we at Clayton County Conservation hope to pass on to a new generation with our new Young Conservationist program.

The idea has been lovingly plagiarized with permission from a successful effort by the Dallas County Conservation Board to give young people the opportunity to gain hands-on experience working and connecting with local public lands. Here in Clayton County, we hope to offer that same opportunity to take pride and ownership in our local parks and green spaces.

This year’s program will feature three sessions on three consecutive Thursdays: July 6th, July 13th, and July 20th.  Volunteers aged 13-18 will spend each session learning the science behind land management principles, and working to restore and improve the health of wild Iowa. We will clear trails, identify and remove invasive plants, or let daylight into the forest to encourage native growth. We will leave each day from Osborne Park in a 15- passenger van at 9 a.m., and return by 1 p.m. This program is perfect for any young person looking to gain real professional experience in natural resource management. Maybe this person is looking towards a career in conservation. Maybe they want to beef up their volunteerism for college applications. Maybe they’re just passionate about playing outside, and want to use that energy to make the world a little more beautiful. Maybe they just want something fun to do on a hot summer day. Because as strange as it sounds – and the psychological science bears this out – it can be incredibly fun to engage with nature in a meaningful and purposeful way. And if nothing else, we’ll be providing lunch, so it’s at least a free meal!  

Whatever the reason, we invite anyone aged 13-18 looking to volunteer a few hours of their summer to better themselves and better the land. Participants are welcome to pick a single date that works, or all three. 

For more information or to sign up, call the Osborne Nature Center at 563-245-1516, or visit and click the “education” tab. 

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