Three Month Old Program Making Difference for Veterans and South Sound Prairies

Planting career seeds in environmental field
By Alexandra Kocik
Northwest Guardian

Northwest Guardian

Environmental intern Forrest Edelman, a former Airman with the 5th Combat Communicationa Group, harvests prairie grass seeds Aug. 4 at Shotwells Landing Nursery near Rochester.
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On a sunny morning, a thin, tan man in a large brimmed khaki hat leans over to get a closer look at the long stalks he holds in his left hand. He takes a small pair of clippers to snip off a part full of fibrous bulbs. The plant, called Collinsia Grandiflora, is native to South Sound Prairies and part of a great collaborative effort to help veterans and the ecosystems. The man, Forrest Edelman, is retired Air Force and gaining experience in the environmental field, which he’d like to find a career in.
Those looking to get their hands dirty and enjoy the great outdoors after leaving the military have a new opportunity. The Washington State Department of Veteran Affairs and Center for Natural Lands Management, a land trust focused on preserving native species, came together last spring to help veterans looking for the skills to transition into an environmental career.
Edelman works on Shotwell’s Landing Nursery, one of two areas volunteers tend to near the Black River near Rochester. Shotwells began as a couple plots and volunteers spending hours looking for seeds in the wild to get to where it is today, with over many rows of plants growing outdoors, and several greenhouses for those put into plant plugs.
New opportunities
The program, started last April, teaches participants how to identify, plant and care for native species, licenses them to use prescribed fires and gives them real experience in the field. All of these skills, coupled with resume seminars and job searching help, are meant to get interns into the environmental jobs they’re interested in.
Nine veterans have participated in the program so far, with six still involved.
Edelman is one of these interns and works in the nursery program, learning about native plants. After receiving an internship through the CNLM while still attending Evergreen State College, Edelman heard about the Veterans Internship program and jumped at the chance.
“I’d like to eventually find work with the CNLM, because I love the South Sound prairies,” he said. “They are wonderful and should not disappear. I’d love to help with that.”
The first step to join this program is through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Matthew West, Prairie Restoration Coordinator, said this internship is intended for people who might not qualify for similar experience with Americorp or other veterans programs. Veterans send in a letter of interest and several other forms, depending on their service background.
“What we’re doing, even with those with dishonorable discharge or criminal backgrounds, is we look at them and work with them,” he said. “Different professionals at the department are helping them with drugs or substance issues. As long as they are enrolled in the system, they may have an opportunity with us.”
There is also no age limit to apply.
Transitioning smoothly
Patrick Dunn, South Sound Prairies Director, said this new program caters to the needs of vets.
“We try to shape the work to both to what our capabilities and expertise are and what the applicants are interested in,” he said. “That’s when it works best, when our energies and goals are the same.”
There will also be time for networking with those currently working for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife and Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
This is important for transitioning service members who are used to a rigid career path and not used to the private work force, he said.
“What we’ve found is that many vets are comfortable with them because a lot of the training is on the base, so they are used to training there and find it satisfying,” Dunn said. “That’s the crux of it, by helping maintain and conserve natural habitats on installation, it helps keep it ready for training in a wholly natural environment.”
Audrey Lamb, Conservation Assistant for CNLM’s South Sound Prairies Program, said they have been impressed with how well the interns have taken on these tasks.
“They all have experience with three key components; problem solving, using and fixing technology and communication skills,” she said. “The military has given them a really good start to go off into other areas, and we help add to that foundation.”
The future
This program was originally funded as part of a grant from the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration program, which helps create partnerships with private and state groups to preserve the land used for military training.
The program is just three months old, which means future plans to expand are still in the future.
Word is spreading about this unique program. Just this week, a White House blog mentioned the South Sound Prairie work as an example of good conservation efforts. Joint Base Lewis-McChord is the first designated Sentinal Landscapes, which is given to areas that help nurture agriculture, military training and native wildlife. It also has the unique aspect of being a place to help veterans transition into civilian life, like Edelman and Skewer.
Dunn says the program may continue to expand in the coming years, in both the amount of interns and what is offered to those looking to learn.
In the meantime, Edelman continues harvesting seeds to be taken into a processing area. Here, the seed is separated from any other pieces and made ready for planting. Eventually, these seeds will go onto be studied, planted back into their natural habitat or grown with care for future seed harvests.