A team of young people from across the country is spending the week on a Mississippi River island as they work to make some of the river’s public beaches a little more hospitable for campers.
The WisCorps conservation crew is working under a contract with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to clear invasive species and poison ivy from 18 beaches between La Crosse and Brownsville, Wis.
The effort is a joint venture of the DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the 240,000-acre Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in response to public complaints about brush and noxious weeds taking over shady campsites.
“There’s nowhere to be in the shade where you’re not in poison ivy,” said Sara Strassman, Mississippi River planner for the Wisconsin DNR. “There’s poison ivy at almost every spot.”
Using chainsaws, loppers and Garlon herbicide, the seven-person crew attacked a thatch of Siberian elm, mulberry and buckthorn encroaching on the beach on what’s commonly called Coney Island. They also cut and sprayed a vine of poison ivy with hand-sized leaves enveloping an oak tree.
Strassman said the vines will be left to die in place, the most effective means of eradication, though the leaves could still trigger a reaction this summer.
It’s the first time the La Crosse office has contracted with the nonprofit organization, though Strassman said she hopes to partner with WisCorps on future projects. The DNR is paying WisCorps $5,000 for the labor.
“We’re excited to work with them,” Strassman said. “It’s a good price. They get a good opportunity.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service provided boats, chainsaws, herbicide and support.
Kendra Pednault, deputy manager for the La Crosse refuge district, said the federal agency’s mission is focused on wildlife habitat, not recreation.
“This is the stuff where clearly we don’t get around to it,” she said. “For all the time and money we spend on the river, this is what people really value.”
Founded in 2009 and based in La Crosse, WisCorps has grown into a 12-person enterprise with annual revenues around $1 million.
Co-founder and operations director Willie Bittner said about 200 teens and young adults serve on at least one crew each year doing conservation and community revitalization work in Wisconsin and neighboring states.
Crew members spend four to 12 weeks living together in the field. They work Mondays through Fridays and participate in recreational activities on the weekends. The pay is $300 a week. Members are provided with tents, camping gear, food and work tools but are told to leave their cellphones behind.
Once their week on the island is done, the crew will move on to other projects around the state, doing trail maintenance at the La Crosse County landfill site, building a bridge in Rock County and creating a water trail on the Willow River near Hudson.
Members say it’s more experience than job.
Crew leader Evan Chalmers of McFarland, Wis., started with the Corps four years ago after ditching a summer job selling knives. Now 24, Chalmers said he’s earned a pesticide applicator license, learned to operate — and repair — a chainsaw and how to manage a group of strangers living in close quarters for weeks on end.
Brandon Young has been working on WisCorps crews for the past three years, using his earning to fund trips to Hawaii and Ecuador.
“I just really love the lifestyle — camping, living in a small community, living outside in nature,” said the 26-year-old Sparta native. “It gives me the freedom to travel.”
For others, the crew marked their first time in the Midwest.
“It’s kind of fun throwing trees,” said Melanie Abrams, who just graduated from MIT and wanted to spend her summer outdoors before beginning graduate studies in microbiology at the University of California-Berkeley.
Josh Karalis, a Los Angeles native also studying at UC-Berkeley, said he signed up for WisCorps to get some hands-on conservation experience and “make some great memories.”
“This is the first time I’ve ever been actually camping like this,” said Milwaukee native Adam Villanueva, who is studying environmental science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And it’s amazing.”