Restoring the Land, Restoring the Human Spirit Oregon/Washington BLM



Restoring the Land, Restoring the Human Spirit

A partnership between the BLM and the Oregon Youth Authority benefits more than just streams and forests; it also helps youths at risk.

story by Kurt Heckeroth & Ariel Hiller
photos by Jeff Clark & Maria Thi Mai

It's a silent, misty morning. Majestic elk weave slowly through the forest. Watching them from nearby, a group of young workers headed to their job site waits quietly for the wild animals to pass, enjoying the stillness before their hard work begins. Today these youths will be restoring a streambed, planting native trees and shrubs that they cultivated for this purpose.

Soon the elk have passed, and the crew finishes their hike to where they'll be working today. Into a large pile, they drop off heavy planting tools, food and water, and necessary supplies. Days for the Camp Tillamook work crew are long and hard and physical. A layer of mud and sweat and rain will coat everyone before their work is done.

These Stripes are Green

Before we follow our workers further into their project, let's learn a little more about them. These young folks who are giving back to the land and helping complete environmental restoration were all considered at-risk youths before they came to the Oregon Youth Authority's (OYA) Camp Tillamook work crew. The OYA's mission is to protect the public and reduce crime by holding youth offenders accountable for their behavior. The OYA provides the treatment, education, and job training to provide youths with the opportunity to learn personal responsibility and develop the skills and behaviors they need to make positive choices for themselves. Ultimately, the OYA seeks to help youth offenders lead crime-free lives and become productive members of their communities.

In the late 1990s, the OYA developed a number of informal partnerships which led to these restoration projects. Recognizing the potential of these young people, the BLM, local watershed councils, and soil and water districts enthusiastically joined forces with the OYA to develop crews that would restore more than 400 miles of degraded streambeds and nearby forest areas. For years all these agencies worked together informally. It wasn't until 2003 that their partnership was officially sanctioned by written agreement, and they received funding for the first time.

Over this period of time, Camp Tillamook has become the hub for stream and forest restoration on the northern coast of Oregon. Here the OYA supports the production of local plants for crucial restoration projects. This campus houses a small nursery that annually produces 15,000 indigenous trees and shrubs, the majority of which are planted by these local partnerships to continually improve Oregon's environment.


The benefits of this relationship are many. The BLM and their partners receive a consistent work force. And in turn, Camp Tillamook work crews are given the opportunity to learn about plants and nursery operations and environmental conservation. Youths are educated on the science of seeds. And thanks to this on-the-job experience, a number of young participants have secured employment at local private nurseries upon their release from the OYA.

Restoring the Land, Restoring the Human Spirit
photo by

Not surprisingly, this partnership is getting a lot of attention. "Because of their dedicated efforts and long-term contributions to BLM projects, the partnership has received three national awards," says BLM Botanist Kurt Heckeroth who oversees the BLM's seedling production for northwest Oregon. "The nursery at Camp Tillamook is a huge undertaking. If it wasn't for the OYA Youth Study Program, we would never have started a nursery here in Tillamook." Kurt also mentions that, in addition to restoration projects, tending the nursery, and planting trees, the OYA work crews also cut firewood for the elderly, help the state park clear debris from storms, and support local cleanups following floods.


Several awards and accolades later, we're back at today's job site. The crew is breaking for lunch. The elk have long wandered off, and even the constant Oregon rain is taking a rest. Workers eat and chat about their struggles. They joke about how the mud is thick, the hikes are long, and their hands and backs feel the good strain of a morning's planting.

Crew leader Brad Keith understands. He works right along with them. He adds, "They're learning job skills, they're giving back to the community, they're helping wildlife, and they're working together as a team." These youth workers are leaving behind their old ways of interacting with the world, ways that weren't working for them or their communities. As they continue to labor and learn at the OYA's Camp Tillamook, the youths continue to move forward towards a new model of behavior and success – a model that happily welcomes them back to society. The BLM is proud to be a member of this partnership shaping the next generation of land stewards.

In some ways, it's not easy to say which benefits more: the restoration of nature or the restoration of the human spirit. Perhaps they are one and the same.

Meet author Kurt Heckeroth and learn more about the BLM's community outreach to Oregon youths in this online video.