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Column: LEAF Interns Appreciate Billy Goat Trail

From left: Nisi Mendez, Alondra Espino, Jennifer Dilone and Sherryann Thomas hike the Billy Goat Trail.

From left: Nisi Mendez, Alondra Espino, Jennifer Dilone and Sherryann Thomas hike the Billy Goat Trail. Devan King

— This past summer, interns with The Nature Conservancy’s LEAF (Leaders for Environmental Action in the Future) program hiked the strenuous Billy Goat Trail on Bear Island the C&O Canal National Historical Park. The interns, all of whom are New York City high school students, first balked at idea of hiking the entire trail, especially the extremely steep and rocky “traverse” section. By the end of the day, however, the things they saw and what they learned made all the clambering worthwhile.

Deborah Barber, director of land management and volunteer coordinator for the Maryland office of The Nature Conservancy, led the hike. Barber is an expert on the plants and animals of this area; and at nearly every corner, she was able to point out another natural wonder to the interns.

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Photo by Kate Miley

From left: Jennifer Dilone, Nisi Mendez, Alondra Espino, Sherryann Thomas pose in front of the Great Falls vista.

Within the first 10 minutes of the hike, for example, the interns were treated to their first sighting of a bald eagle, an especially neat spot since the interns have spent the bulk of their four-week internship in and around the nation’s capital.

“There was a time when The Conservancy would never have let a staff person take a day to lead a hike for such a small group of people,” Barber said. “But our priorities are changing, and fostering the next generation of environmental leaders is now one of our primary goals.”

LEAF is part of the Conservancy’s new focus: The LEAF program offers urban students who attend environmental high schools four-week paid internship positions that place them in natural preserves and areas around the country where the interns work, learn, and play in the wild. Many of the interns have never engaged with the outdoors before, and this is unfortunately the case for most of America’s young people today.

“The goal of the LEAF program is to instill a love of the environment in young people that will stick with them both personally and professionally,” said Brigitte Griswold, director of youth programs for The Nature Conservancy.

In keeping with the aim of the LEAF program, the four interns stationed in the Chesapeake region — Jennifer Dilone, Sherryann Thomas, Alondra Espino, and Nisi Mendez —spent three weeks doing conservation work ranging from maintenance at the Ice Mountain Preserve in West Virginia to water quality monitoring on the Cowpasture River near Warm Springs, Va.

In the last week of the internship program, the interns are learning all about what Maryland has to offer. Along the Billy Goat Trail, Deborah makes frequent stops to show the interns first-hand about the landscape of Great Falls.

Even at Great Falls Park, where approximately half a million visitors come to see the falls and hike every year, there is abundant evidence of natural beauty and functioning natural systems. By the end of the hike, the interns have spotted two species of lizards, blue herons, turtles and tortoises, edible cacti, and Sweet Annie — a plant commonly used in potpourri — in addition to the eagle sighting earlier in the day.

And of course, the views of the falls are a thrill for the interns. We stopped to take pictures, and it was clear from their high praise of the falls that such scenes of pristine natural grandeur aren’t too numerous around where the interns live in New York.

The LEAF program ended, and as they head back to the Big Apple, they’ll take more than tired muscles with them:

“One thing I’ll tell my family is that there is so much beauty out here in the wild, more than I thought,” said Alondra Espino, one of the interns. “Nature is so big, not only in the sense of large areas like Great Falls, but also in the sense that there is so much life — like the small lizards and plants we saw earlier — in every corner of the woods. You just have to open your eyes.”

Learn more about LEAF at: www.facebook.com/dc.md.va.nature.conservancy