Participants in the Baxter Youth Conservation Corp explore Baxter State Park as Conservation Fellows in the summer of 2020.  Photo: Friends of Baxter State Park

By Ramona du Houx

August 30, 2020

People in a normal year travel to Maine’s Baxter State Park in droves in the summertime. They leave with memories that last a lifetime. Some fall so deeply in love with Maine, their experiences often point the way for them to return. Many adults talk about how they vacationed in Maine during the summer inspiring them to move. Circumstances are different in the middle of a pandemic.

Even with so many programs for youth cancelled this year due to COVID-19, Friends of Baxter State Park decided it would make whatever changes were necessary to ensure the Baxter Youth Conservation Corps could happen safely this summer.

The Baxter Youth Conservation Corps is a service-learning program that hires teens from the Katahdin Region to work on trial projects in Baxter State Park. Working with experienced crew leaders, youth earn $14 to $17 per hour clearing trails, building bridges, and installing rock steps. The program typically hires 20 local high school students for full-time employment every summer.

Over the last three years, the program has completed more than 5,524 hours of trail work and provided nearly $100,000 in payroll for the economy of the Katahdin Region. Many youths leave the program excited to pursue careers in the conservation or outdoor recreation fields.

“Most trail work is not very conducive to social distancing,” said Aaron Megquier, Executive Director of the Friends group. “As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded this spring, it became clear that we had to make some significant changes. Our youth participants were counting on the work, and we feel very strongly about the benefits of the program for the Park and local communities. We were able to pivot quickly in June and develop a modified, socially-distant program that we are calling our 2020 Conservation Fellows.”

Fellowships are full-time for six weeks, pay $16 per hour, and are fully remote – no van shuttles, crew leaders, or shared tools as in past years. The opportunity was available to incoming high school seniors and 2020 graduates with previous experience in the Baxter Youth Conservation Corps.

“Our eight Conservation Fellows are working independently on a range of projects” said Megquier. “They are each spending at least two days per week out exploring in the Park, doing a lot of writing, and taking a ton of photo and video. They are also each completing an independent study related to the Park, on topics ranging from fisheries biology to Native culture.”

Fellows are working from home and carefully following all State of Maine and Baxter State Park guidelines related to COVID-19 – including maintaining physical distancing, practicing good hand hygiene, and wearing face masks when they pass other hikers on the trail.

“We are really proud to be able to offer this opportunity in the midst of the pandemic,” said Megquier. “These young people are proof that youth development, economic development, community revitalization, and conservation can go hand in hand.”