Get your hands dirty

Teens working on environmental, conservation projects

Adolfo Guevara, Gabriel Avenna, Daniel Deleon, David Melgoza and John Paul De La O pose in the outdoor classroom.

Adolfo Guevara, Gabriel Avenna, Daniel Deleon, David Melgoza and John Paul De La O pose in the outdoor classroom.

Photo/Sage Leehey

To learm more about the LEAF program, visit

For about a month, four teens from South Central Los Angeles are giving up summer vacation time to work with the Nature Conservancy in Nevada on environmental and conservation work in the Carson Valley.

The four students are from the Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, California, and were selected as interns in the Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program. This program is a partnership between TNC, the Toyota Foundation and environmentally themed high schools across the country. The students and teachers come from the schools, the majority of the funding comes from the Toyota Foundation, and TNC provides staff and the locations for the students to work on.

“LEAF supplements the environmental education that is going on in the classroom with experiential education or real world experiences for the, usually, urban high school students,” said TNC Eastern Sierra Nevada program project director Duane Petite. “It’s designed to increase their awareness of environmental and conservation issues, but it’s also to increase their awareness of higher education opportunities and careers in related fields.”

The interns first completed a specialized wilderness first aid certification course. After that they began improvements on a schoolyard habitat at Gardnerville Elementary School that acts as an outdoor classroom. Then they rerouted a hiking trail to reduce soil erosion near Evans Pass in Noble Canyon. They also work in the Carson Valley and Markleeville assessing the conditions of meadows and help to determine the population of young Lahontan Cutthroat Trout at Independence Lake.

The interns also visit area colleges that have environmental and natural resource management programs. About 40 percent of LEAF alumni have applied to at least one of the colleges they visited during the program. Petite said they learn other real world skills, like budgeting, during this program.

“Not only is this conservation oriented, obviously, but they’re also learning some real life skills because they have to use a budget to plan their meals and shop for their food,” Petite said. “They have to use that budget to prioritize their off-duty, off-work recreation activities.”

Intern John Paul De La O has done the program two summers in a row and said he enjoys experiencing nature outside of the “concrete jungle” of Los Angeles. He’s also learned to not fear going out into nature as much. Intern Daniel Deleon enjoys the new experiences, too.

“I think it’s important to learn about new environments with new people that you’ve never met and to break out of your comfort zone, and LEAF kind of just does exactly that,” Deleon said.

Petite said the reason TNC does this is to try to prevent younger generations from not caring about the environment and world around them as the world becomes increasingly urban and digital.

“What we’re trying to do is find ways to connect people with nature,” Petite said. “Many young people seem like they’re growing up without a meaningful, personal connection with nature, and the more disconnected they are from natural landscapes, probably the less likely they’re going to be to care about them later in life. And certainly the Nature Conservancy believes that trend poses a serious threat to the future health of our world.”