Current Events

Title:Veterans help Forest Service with conservation projects

Author:Steve Frederick

Date:December 2017

Source:By Steve Frederick - Star Herald - ©2017 Associated Press, Used with permission

Volume:Volume 3 Issue 137

CHADRON — In an all-volunteer military, many troops enlist right out of high school and return abruptly to civilian life, leaving behind their service friendships and day-to-day discipline with little work experience and support.

Upon their return from battlefields such as Iraq and Afghanistan, they sometimes struggle to reintegrate into civilian life.

This fall, five military veterans and one current member of the U.S. Army Reserve have been working on both the Pine Ridge Ranger District near Chadron and the Bessey Nursery near Halsey on conservation and sustainability projects for the Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands. They work side-by-side with fellow veterans, learning valuable job skills while continuing to serve their country by working on forest protection and restoration.

For more than a half-century, the U.S. Forest Service and a nonprofit civilian organization known as the Student Conservation Association have worked together to support military veterans with technical training and field experience. In turn, the Forest Service and other agencies receive valuable assistance in protecting and restoring national parks, forests, marine sanctuaries, cultural landmarks and community green spaces throughout the nation. The SCA's mission is to "build the next generation of conservation leaders and inspire lifelong stewardship of the environment and communities by engaging young people in hands-on service to the land through service opportunities, outdoor skills, and leadership training."

It places more than 4,000 volunteers annually in public lands and urban green spaces. Conservation Crews typically do trail construction or erosion control. Other projects may include restoration of tourist-impacted areas and invasive species removal. In 2010, it added the Veterans Fire Corps in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service. In addition to wildland firefighting, members' work can include standing thinning operations, controlled-burn preparation and when conditions allow, participation in controlled burning exercises.

Mike Mattmiller, acting fire management officer for the Pine Ridge Ranger District, said the program provides recent-era military vets with career training in wildfire mitigation and forestry while easing their transition back to civilian life.

The SCA six-man crew includes three U.S. Marine Corps and three U.S. Army veterans, who strive to develop skills that may lead to a career as wildland firefighters or others that allow them to work outdoors, rather than "behind a computer all day." To begin their assignment in the forests near Chadron, they completed required courses to receive firefighting qualification. During their tour, their assignments developed firefighting-related skills, such as chainsaw work, prescribed burn preparation, digging line and thinning.

While working on the Bessey Nursery in the Sandhills at Halsey they cut more than 150 trees in heavily timbered ground. Since coming to the Pine Ridge Ranger District, they completed important wildlife habitat improvement and preparation for hazardous fuel reduction projects, which will enhance public safety efforts already in progress.

"They've worked on fencing for wildlife exclosures and on small pine removal for hardwood regeneration," Mattmiller said.

They've also been preparing ground for a controlled burn to remove unwanted fuels that could increase fire hazards in the forest, which has seen several huge wildfires since 2000. Joining the district Sept. 18, they spent two weeks training in Colorado to earn their valuable "Red Card" certification to qualify for federal firefighting crews and on chainsaw handling.

District Ranger Tim Buskirk said that while they provide the district with valuable assistance during a time of the year when the forest sees heavy use by hunters, it also gives them exposure to Forest Service policies and activities.

"They get good experience for future positions," he said.

When they're not on the job, the veterans have enjoyed visiting regional attractions such as Chadron State Park, Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave and Devil's Tower.

Members of the group include Michael Crews, South Carolina, Marine Corps; Andre Ray, New York, Marine Corps; Tim Tate, New York, Marine Corps; Kyle Servedio, Florida, Army; Matthew Jacobs, Ohio, Army; and Karson Mikula, Michigan, Army. They will be assisting the Forest Service with local projects until the end of November.

"We are pleased to have been able to give these fine veterans the training and introduction to skills needed to support their pursuit of a career in fire management, conservation and sustainability," said Kevin Atchley, NNFG forest supervisor. "While on the NNFG, this crew accomplished an amazing amount of important work in a short period of time. I know all of our forest leadership team members join me in thanking the crew for their outstanding efforts. While I would want each of them to pursue a career in the U.S. Forest Service, all of them will add tremendous value to any organization they wish to join."

The Student Conservation Association is currently recruiting for the Veterans Fire Corps. For more information or to apply, contact Program Manager Emily Palmer at or 412-325-1851 x 3061.

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