Curtis Love had some serious questions earlier this month as he stood in the parking lot of the Hazelwood Carnegie Library branch, located above a laundromat and across from more than a handful of vacant and graffiti-tagged storefronts.
"Will there be grizzly bears? What about wolves?"
Told that there are no wild wolves or grizzlies in Pennsylvania, only black bears, Curtis quickly asked, "Well, what about snakes?"
The 14-year-old and a dozen other youths who worked in the Student Conservation Association's Hazelwood crew for six weeks this summer clearing vacant lots in that Pittsburgh neighborhood were waiting for vans that would take them to the Allegheny National Forest, a natural habitat that was anything but that for them.
The forest foray is part of a pilot collaboration between the SCA, a national nonprofit public lands conservation organization, and the U.S. Forest Service, aimed at exposing urban youth to that sylvan setting -- and inspiring them to consider a conservation career.
The Hazelwood crew, which cleared 27 lots this summer, was the last of the five community crews from Pittsburgh to visit the state's only national forest, 150 miles north of the city and much farther than that from their comfort zone.
Nancy Schaefer, SCA program manager in Pittsburgh, said the Hazelwood crew got off to a rocky start two years ago, in part because of push-back from parents and participants about its conservation-themed work.
"They told us, 'We don't want to be lumberjacks,' " Ms. Schaefer said. "It's hard for urban kids to have an appreciation or understanding of places they've never visited, and I was really skeptical that any of the kids would want to do this. You could count on one hand, maybe one finger, the number of kids who have slept outside in the woods or camped.
"But for this, their parents pushed them. Plus, it's a workday and they're getting paid."
'Will we see rattlesnakes?'
After a nearly three-hour ride north, the Hazelwood crew arrives at the Allegheny National Forest's Marienville ranger station and visitor center, where they see a bear.
It is stuffed.
And it's part of a nature exhibit that also features a fox, coyote, fisher, owl and timber rattlesnake. All stuffed, but posed realistically enough to prompt some not-so-idle questions from the group.
"How big is that bear?"
"Will we see rattlesnakes?"
"What if one comes in our tent?"
"What's the difference between a fox and a coyote?"
"Do we have to sleep in tents?"
Rob Fallon, a district ranger in the Allegheny National Forest's Marienville station who has worked with the summer-long SCA intern program for four years, begins an orientation talk by assuring them that "none of these animals will come looking for you."
Few seem convinced.
After answering the questions about forest animals and reviewing what to do if someone gets lost -- "admit you're lost, don't panic, stay where you are" -- Mr. Fallon points to exhibit photographs of Civilian Conservation Corps crews that built roads and bridges and trails in the Allegheny National Forest in the 1930s and early 1940s, part of "Roosevelt's Army," and the forerunners of the SCA crews that have worked in the national forest.
He notes for his largely African-American audience that the CCC was segregated, but that three of the 14 CCC crews in the forest were African-American.
A short time later, while driving his pickup and leading the Hazelwood vans to a forest meadow 15 minutes away where they will erect eastern bluebird nesting boxes, Mr. Fallon said the urban connection is a key aspect of the Forest Service's partnership with SCA.
"This is like rubbing two stones together to create a spark," Mr. Fallon said. "Three or four of these kids will be so turned on by this experience, they'll want to take the next step and sign up for a community crew that goes out in the woods for two weeks to do a service project on national park or national forest land."
Some might even commit to a month-long work project in SCA high school or leader crews, or become involved in the Forest Service's partnership program that guarantees the SCA interns federal jobs after they graduate from college, he said.
Mr. Fallon knows the value of the forest experience firsthand. His career path, which has taken him to postings in national forests across the country, started in 1976 when, as a 17-year-old in urban northeast Philadelphia, he spent eight weeks working at the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, near Cresson in Cambria County.
"That cemented, for me, what I wanted to do," he said.
Work gets done
More than 250 youth have participated in the Forest Service's four-year, $825,000 partnership program with the SCA, funded in 2009 with federal economic stimulus money. Much of that money supported summer-long internships for SCA national leadership crews doing trail work in the Allegheny National Forest, as well as other community and high school crews on two-week work projects.
Mr. Fallon said the partnership with the SCA program has greatly reduced the backlog of trail maintenance work on many national forest trails, including the North Country Trail, and the value of the work done is more than twice the stimulus grant.
The pilot "recreation program" that brought the Hazelwood youths and other neighborhood crews to the forest was added this summer to provide an introduction to public land conservation work to the SCA's urban participants.
"All are from the city. Almost 90 percent are people of color, and most are experiencing the forest for the first time," Mr. Fallon said. "I asked a girl in one of the earlier groups visiting the forest if she could think of five things she did here that she'd never done before. Her response was, 'Everything.' "
The pilot program ends next Sunday, when the stimulus funding runs out. The SCA and the Forest Service want it to continue and are looking for new funding sources.
"We're talking to foundations now to see if we can sustain this program," he said. "It's a way to build on what they do in the neighborhood, and our objective is to spark their interest in the ANF as a place to visit, recreate and protect. Young people from the city need to experience and understand that people can have careers out here."
'You are safe in the woods'
The caravan, with the Forest Service truck in the lead, moves slowly down a one-lane dirt road with the forest brushing the vehicles' sides. It stops at a yellow ribbon tied to a tree that marks the route to the meadow. Crew members get out of the vehicles, don yellow SCA hard hats and scramble down a slope covered with tangled vines and prickly brush while carrying metal posts, nesting boxes, ladders and tools.
"I had no idea the forest was so big," said Isaiah Pryor, 17, as he hesitantly picked a black raspberry on the edge of the meadow, tasted it and then hungrily sought out more. "The trees, the silence. These berries are sweet. I like being away from home."
The work project is quickly completed and is followed by fishing, swimming and a picnic along the East Branch of Millstone Creek. Tents are pitched in the Loleta Campground.
As moon beams filter through the shadowy tree canopy, Mr. Fallon announces that it's time for a night hike, the trip's signature activity.
There is grumbling and concerns voiced about safety. Several youths balk at going on the hike but eventually relent. Others grab for flashlights, which aren't allowed on the hike and are quickly confiscated by Mr. Fallon. He tells the group they will be hiking on a narrow, dark, rarely used rocky forest road where a four-wheel drive vehicle would not be a luxury.
"You are safe in the woods," Mr. Fallon tells them, shortly before a screech owl's cry undermines that assurance for some. "We will be the hunter, not the prey, and we will learn to adapt our senses. We will experience the woods as a safe and comfortable place."
They begin walking up the road in silence for about a half-mile, holding hands for support and strung out in a long line. When Mr. Fallon stops, he tells the group it will continue to walk in line without talking, but every 50 yards or so an individual will be left behind, alone on the road, as the rest of the group moves on. After each person is left alone, he said, he will begin retracing his steps to re-connect with the individual hikers.
"Stay where you are left. Don't wander off," he advised. "Sit down, even lay down if you want. Listen. You may hear dripping. That's the trees transpiring. You may hear small animals. I challenge you to face your fears."
"What if a bear comes?" Curtis asked.
"Your imagination," Mr. Fallon replied, "will cause you more problems than anything else."
The next generation?
Ninety minutes later, after the hike was done and with the group reassembled, Mr. Fallon asked the crew members for their thoughts. Not all of them were positive. Several said they were afraid. A couple said they'd leave the forest immediately if they could. Others tapped strength they were surprised they possessed.
"I heard, like rats, and birds," said Matthew Yarbough, 19. "I saw flashes of light. But I told myself there was nothing there."
Rocco Scott, 17, said the forest is such a wild place compared with Hazelwood.
"On the trail, I just felt real alone," he said. "It was a very different setting than I'm used to. I was hearing a lot of noises, but then I looked up at the stars and everything just went away."
"I like the dark, but then my fears started to take over," Isaiah said. "But if you don't let it win, you can accomplish anything. I think it's all about trust and I trusted Ranger Rob."
"I didn't like being left alone," Curtis said. "But I was surprised I wasn't the only one scared."
Ms. Schaefer said that fear mostly fades as the youths get more familiar with the forest.
"The kids have come back from every trip we've taken up there starry-eyed and very turned around, very jagged, by what they've experienced," she said. "These camping trips have gotten us a longer wait list of city kids for the SCA leadership program than we've had for a long time. The fun part is to pique their interest and maybe build the next generation of conservation leaders."
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983. First Published August 25, 2013 4:00 AM