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Mission Mountains Youth Crew Program: Inaugural Year a Success!

Creating a connection with the environment and appreciating our natural surroundings can help us establish a sense of purpose. This connection can last a lifetime, and help drive the decisions we make, the career we choose and the passions we pursue. For some, it can bring you closer to your roots, and even unveil a unique sense of belonging.

This past year, the youth of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes were offered the opportunity to connect with the natural and cultural resources of their traditional homelands by participating in the Mission Mountains Youth Crew Program. The Mission Mountains Range is known for its incredible ecosystem and historic significance to the Bitterroot Salish and Pend d’Oreille Tribes. The participants of the program were able to learn more about the culture and heritage of these lands, how they are co-managed between different entities, and what a possible career could entail in the outdoors. The students walked away with the understanding that they can make a difference, and the motivation to pursue a career in the outdoors.

We were lucky to chat with Tim Ryan and Marlee Ostheimer to learn more about the inaugural year of the Mission Mountains Youth Crew Program! Check it out:


Tim and Marlee, can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your backgrounds? 

Tim: My name is Tim Ryan, and I am a member of the Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana and an educator of American Indian Culture and environmental sciences. I am the Department Head for the Culture and Language degree program for the Salish Kootenai College Native American Studies Division.

My work with my elders and studies of our traditional homelands has moved me to reconstruct the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of the seasonal round and the material culture of my tribes, and to create experiential learning opportunities to help students to connect with the natural environment.

Marlee: I work at the National Forest Foundation’s (NFF) Missoula Headquarters office where I get to focus my time on raising funds for awesome projects throughout the Northern Rockies like the Mission Mountains Youth Program. I have been with the NFF since 2013 and feel so lucky to have gotten to be a part of creating this amazing program.

Tim and Marlee: What is the Mission Mountains Youth Crew program? Tim: It is a program to connect the reservation youth with the natural and cultural resources of their traditional homelands and set them up to develop to their highest potential. This requires the cooperation of multiple partners getting involved with similar goals in mind. The Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) has a very professional Natural Resource Department and is responsible for managing lands on and off the reservation while employing many tribal members. CSKT has close connections to the Salish Kootenai College, which helps to foster future careers with the tribes. The partnership extends off the reservation to the adjacent Flathead National Forest where natural resource professionals with the Forest Service work with the crew on projects that have cultural and environmental importance to the indigenous youth. Marlee: In 2021, the NFF ran a pilot of the Program with a crew of six high school-age students from local schools and two student crew leads from the Salish Kootenai College. The crew worked for seven weeks over the summer of 2021, completing stewardship activities with both the Flathead National Forest and CSKT. Through exposure to various natural resource disciplines with both the Forest Service and CSKT, we hope to show the youth the many possibilities that are out there for them. The Program is a partnership between the CSKT Natural Resources Department, CSKT Tribal Education, the Salish Kootenai College, the Flathead National Forest, Swan Valley Connections, and the National Forest Foundation. In addition, several key partners brought resources to the program, including Osprey Packs, which generously provided backpacks to the crew.   Can you highlight some of the challenges you had to overcome to launch this initiative? Marlee: COVID-19 delayed the launch of the program by a year. Planning and fundraising began in 2019. We were preparing to run the pilot over the summer of 2020. In the spring of 2020, we decided to pull the plug due to concerns around COVID. It was a tough decision, but ultimately the partners came to the decision unanimously and it made our launch in 2021 all the more exciting. Tim: Yes, COVID was and still is an issue with this program. SKC has put in place a COVID policy that has worked to keep everyone safe during workdays, and during travel to the job sites. We had to rent two vans from SKC transportation department to give ample room for social distancing within the vans along with mask wearing.   Share with us what a typical day would look like for a participant in the program. Tim: A typical day with the youth crew would start with first gathering to review our duties for the day. Vans are loaded up with crewmembers, lunches, water, and tools. Then we travel to the jobsite where a natural resources professional will meet with us to engage with the crew and to lay out the work for the day. The first of the morning will be spent learning from the resource professional about his or her profession and how they got to this point in their career. And then we get to work. I should also mention that we are doing 10-hour workdays for logistical reasons, like affording time to travel to and from the worksite that may be located high in the mountains or off the reservation. In addition to getting work done, we also want to give enough time for career track exposure and educational opportunities in natural history, heritage education, and ecology. The work component of a typical day would be spent on a project such as brushing out a trail, pulling aquatic invasive weeds, or assisting with historic preservation efforts with a museum or educational program for the general public. Some favorite projects from the season included bird banding with our partner, Swan Valley Connections, and a multi-day float trip down the Flathead River to clean up campsites.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the Mission Mountains range, and why this region is so special? Tim: The Mission Mountains are ancestral lands of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille and contain many heritage sites of historic significance to the Tribes. As recently as two hundred years ago, the Bitterroot Salish and Pend d’Oreille crossed the Missions annually as they made their way between western Montana’s rivers and valleys and the bison hunting grounds beyond the Rocky Mountain Front.   What is the Mission Mountain Divide? Marlee: The Mission Mountain Divide is the high point in the Mission Mountains Range. It forms the eastern boundary of the Flathead Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The Tribes manage lands west of the Divide and the land east of the Divide is managed by the Flathead National Forest. Tim: The Mission Mountain Divide could also be a metaphor for the divide between the Indigenous Worldview and the Western Worldview. These differing worldviews are embodied in the perspectives and relationships that the indigenous peoples have with the environment compared with a more euromerican colonizing attitude to nature. Marlee: Yes, and this program helps to bridge the Divide.   Tim: Can you further explain what cross-boundary stewardship means, and why do the wilderness areas adjacent to the Mission Mountain Divide provide the unique opportunity to fulfill this effort?  One of the ways this program is unique is the opportunity it provides for cross-boundary stewardship. The Flathead National Forest and CSKT each manage adjacent landscapes containing wilderness areas. There isn’t really anywhere else that we are aware of like this. It gives crew members the opportunity to learn from Forest Service and CSKT specialists representing diverse disciplines, including aquatics, wildlife, heritage, and recreation. In the pilot year, the crew spent time working on three ancestral trail routes that still exist today and span both CSKT and Forest Service-managed sides of the Mission Mountains. Working cross boundary, crew members experience firsthand the opportunities, parallels, and differences between Forest Service and CSKT land management practices. The Program also helps to build the relationship between the Forest Service and CSKT.   Tim: Why is this program important to you, and what were some of the most memorable or emotional moments from this past year? What are you most looking forward to about next year’s program? Throughout the MMYC program I have been giving the youth the opportunities to connect with nature and their heritage and thinking that the connection to the land may naturally foster a profession in natural resources or historic preservation. It was after we had spent a day brushing out a major historic trail used by their ancestors. One of our female crew members had mentioned that she felt like someone was watching her through the day and she felt it must have been her great great grandfather who was a horse packer in these mountains. She asked a lot of questions about the travels of her tribe and mentioned how she is now interested in historic preservation which could lead into a career in anthropology, archaeology, and history. The natural resource professionals (Forest Service and CSKT) we worked with gave the youth crew good exposure to what their profession is about and how they had had come to be in that career. Many of the crew members were inspired by the professionals and a male crew member declared that he was going to work outdoors for the rest of his life. He also rarely took off his Osprey Pack and had it by his side at all times.


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