A team of seven AmeriCorps volunteers is assisting the U.S. Forest Service in locating endangered species and identifying non-native invasive plants.

The team arrived September 23 and will remain in the area until October 15.

Ed Moody, a wildlife biologist with the De Soto Ranger District in Wiggins, said the team’s efforts were part of the USFS plan to restore the long-leaf pine ecosystem in the area.

“They are providing much needed assistance in our attempts to restore that ecosystem,” he said. “It takes boots on the ground and people actually going through the forest to identify areas where logging can be done to remove unwanted timber while at the same time avoiding protected species.”

Made up of young people from very divergent backgrounds, the team has been hiking the De Soto National Forest in search of gopher tortoise burrows and nesting sites of the red-cockaded woodpecker.

At the same time, they have identified areas where cogon grass has taken a foothold, both flagging the areas and recording the exact locations on hand-held GPS units.

Ryan Kroll, a 25-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio, Ayrica Cecil, a 20-year-old from Puna, Hawaii and Tanner O’Neill, a 20-year-old from Cincinnati took a day last week to recruit volunteers at Stone High School.

They said AmeriCorps and the National Civilian Community Corps provided a good buffer for those who either want to take a break before attending college or a break between college and entering the workforce.

Volunteers, most between the ages of 18 and 24, sign up for a 10-month commitment and, in return, receive a $6,195 educational grant they can use toward tuition at a college or trade school or toward retiring student debt.

“It was kind of perfect for me because I couldn’t afford tuition,” said Cecil.

The trio set up at a table in the high school cafeteria and shared information with interested students.

“Part of our purpose in being here is to recruit the next generation of AmeriCorps volunteers,” O’Neill said.

On Friday of last week, while hiking on Camp Shelby’s Rattlesnake Range, O’Neill said he deemed the recruitment effort a success.

“We had about 80 students approach us and about 20 of those seemed to be seriously interested,” he said. “I don’t know how many of those will follow up, but we were able to get them the information they need and if just one were to actually volunteer, that’s great.”

A team of O’Neill, team leader Alan Kohlschmidt, a 27-year-old from Irvine, Ca. and Brian Wise, a 23-year-old from Chicago, hiked an ATV trail through several sections of the forest.

Just a short way off the access road, the team came to an abrupt stop when it encountered a coiled eastern diamondback rattlesnake.

The snake and the volunteers eyed one another warily before the hikers gave the reptile a wide berth and went on their way.

In addition to three gopher tortoise burrows, the team identified several areas of cogon grass infestation and marked everything accordingly, both digitally and on hard copies.

Kohlschmidt provided entertainment for the others when, attempting to determine id a tortoise burrow was active or not, dropped his phone into the burrow.

“Oh, [expletive],” rang out through the woods.

A forked stick allowed him to retrieve the device.

The other members of the seven-member team are Phoebe Wixsom, 23, of San Francisco and Meredith Gray, 22, of Philadelphia.

In addition to the educational grant, volunteers receive other benefits including a small living allowance, room and board, leadership development, increased self-confidence and the knowledge that, through active citizenship, people can indeed make a difference.

AmeriCorps NCCC is administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

For more information about the AmeriCorps NCCC program, visit the website at www.americorps.gov/nccc

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