By Robert Fears
“What’s the answer?” “Soil Health!” “I cannot hear you…” “SOIL HEALTH!”
The sun has set on another long day at Youth Range Workshop (YRW), but the group is still going strong at 10:30 p.m., as 24 fired-up teenagers from all over Texas answer the question at the top of their lungs. They have spent the day learning about all things rangeland and they are not done yet — next up is public speaking. They eagerly raise their hands for the chance to step up and tell their fellow “range campers” what they learned that day. The long day winds down with some words of wisdom and vespers [evening prayers] from Jason Loeffler, an alum of YRW, now assistant vice president at Junction National Bank.
Rangeland is one of our most important natural resources and plays an essential role in the survival of mankind. It furnishes forage and browse for grazing livestock, which are an economical source of protein.
Rangeland is habitat for many types of wildlife and provides recreation in many forms such as hunting, fishing, bird watching, wildlife viewing and hiking.
Properly-managed native grass collects precipitation and allows it to infiltrate into the soil to support vegetation and eventually charge the water tables. Grass removes silt and other debris from water that runs into streams and rivers.
Rangeland flora cleans the air by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Last, but not least, rangeland offers sources of energy including hydrocarbons, wind, solar and water.
It is mandatory that we manage rangelands properly to sustain the ever-growing world population.
Range management is both an art and a science, which are developed through education and experience. Recognizing the need for young people to develop range management skills, the Texas Section of the Society of Range Management (TSSRM) conducts an annual summer workshop which includes both classroom training and hands-on experiences in the field.
“The 65th Youth Range Workshop will be conducted next summer,” says Jenny Pluhar, co-coordinator of YRW and chair of the TSSRM Youth Activities Committee “Although traditionally youth from 4-H and FFA programs have attended, any youth interested in learning more about rangelands, livestock, wildlife, and water is welcome.”
The TSSRM Youth Range Workshop is a Texas tradition. Rangeland makes up more than 65 percent of Texas — more than 100 million acres. Let that soak in for a minute. While rangeland is often associated with livestock grazing and wildlife habitat, it is a key in providing water for all Texans, both through aquifer recharge or runoff captured in lakes.
Rangelands are far more important to Texas and her people than most realize. Soil health is not just a buzzword but is recognized by range scientists everywhere as the foundation of healthy rangeland. You simply cannot have one without the other. Kindling that kind of enthusiasm in a group of teenagers is the core purpose behind Youth Range Workshop.
More than six decades ago, Dr. Jake Landers’ father, Roger Q. Landers Sr., a rancher who was then TSSRM president, and Dr. A. H. “Fred” Walker, Extension range specialist, launched the first Youth Range Workshop at the Texas Tech campus near Junction. Back in those days, this campus was where the legendary Bear Bryant brought his football team to train.
“At the time, I was a graduate student at Texas A&M University and was responsible for some of the workshop programs,” relates Landers. “I joined the Army after graduation and then taught at Iowa State University. Since my return to Texas in 1979, I have participated in every workshop. For several years, workshop attendees and staff spent a day on our ranch doing range quality measurements. I believe so strongly in the workshop that I will continue to participate as long as my health allows.”
Things have surely changed since that first handful of boys from area ranches attended the inaugural Youth Range Workshop. Although many of the youth do sleep in the same screened-in cabins, a conference center, cafeteria, and additional air-conditioned sleeping quarters have been added.
The camp looks similar to what it did in 1954 but the “survival rate” is much higher and the experience much more fun.
“What I like most about YRW is that almost everything is hands-on learning,” says Alex Smith, of Canadian. “We get a chance to go out in the field and learn about managing rangeland and what it takes to do so. I may not go along the range management pathway, but I do know that whatever career choice I make, I will use what I have learned on a daily basis.” Smith attended YRW in 2017 and returned as a junior director in 2018. He was a High School Youth Forum (HSYF) delegate in 2018 and was elected president of HSYF. He will again participate in HSYF in 2019.
The old cabins are still not air-conditioned; they are ventilated through screen wire that covers the upper half of the exterior walls. In addition, range campers are often exposed to various interesting art and science programs that are ongoing at the campus, now owned and operated by Texas Tech University.
How the workshop functions
Originally, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension provided leadership and organized the annual workshops. In recent years, TSSRM Youth Activities Committee has conducted the event with a workforce largely made of volunteers who meet prior to the annual workshop to fine tune curriculum, plan activities and seek new ways to engage the youth in a meaningful learning experience.
The youth are exposed to the intense curriculum by a team of volunteers with years of experience in the profession. The team has ranchers, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) professionals, ag science teachers, range consultants, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Certified Prescribed Burn Managers and even the local banker.
It truly takes the time and treasure of scores of people and organizations across Texas to pull off a successful YRW, year after year. The team is diverse, with a couple of members long since retired and the youngest in her first year as an agriculture science teacher. Just like a diverse plant community is the key to healthy rangeland, the diverse team is the key to Youth Range Workshop.
YRW leadership is shared by three co-coordinators who serve three-year terms, with one coordinator being replaced each year. The addition of one new coordinator annually helps keep the curriculum fresh and current. In addition to Pluhar, the other two current co-coordinators are Dan Caudle, retired from USDA NRCS, and Mario Lamb, agricultural science teacher.
At 80-something years of age, Landers is the senior volunteer and one of the most enthusiastic,” says Pluhar. “He actively recruits attendees and offers ideas on how to modernize various teaching techniques. He is simply amazing.”
YRW depends upon financial donations for operation and registration support for youth. Generous donors include Corteva AgriSciences, Bayer Range and Pasture, Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD), Texas Grazing Land Coalition, NRCS, ranchers, prescribed burn associations (local, state, and multi-state), universities and many small-town businesses.
Art and science meet stewardship
“During the six-day workshop, youth are immersed in everything from identifying plants, learning mapping skills, conducting forage inventories, learning the grazing habits of livestock and wildlife, studying plant community composition and its impact on water infiltration and runoff, and conducting a prescribed burn on a local ranch. In addition, they learn that soil health is required for productive rangeland. Hands-on-learning is the focus of the workshop, whether it is collecting plants, correctly operating a drip torch, clipping and weighing forage, or learning to use the latest phone app as an aid in range management. The central theme throughout the week is stewardship,” says Pluhar.
“Youth Range Workshop is where I learned not only what true stewardship of our rangeland is, but also that the conservation ethic must be shared,” says Dandy Kothmann, NRCS district conservationist. “It’s the reason I chose a career with NRCS to work with landowners. It is also the reason I return to teach at YRW each June. Knowledge and stewardship of the land must be passed on to future generations.”
The prescribed burn is the most popular hands-on activity for many of the youth. The fire is planned well in advance, and in great detail, by one of the certified prescribed burn managers and it is conducted in cooperation with a local rancher. The kids learn all aspects of prescribed fire, from monitoring weather conditions to mop-up. Many are especially interested in watching wildlife reactions to fire, whether it is Texas horned lizards scurrying to safety or watching quail feed on insects in front of the head fire. Providing opportunity to experience range management first-hand has proven to be the most effective and meaningful way to teach youth the importance of sound range stewardship.
“In addition to science, developing leadership and public speaking skills are primary aspects of the YRW program,” Pluhar continues. “Youth are grouped together in ‘outfits’ with which they do a variety of activities throughout the week. Each day a youth is elected ‘Ramrod’ to lead his or her cabin group, and a ‘Drover’ is elected daily to lead the outfit. Those daily leaders are trained in the evening, before they assume their role the following day.
At the end of the week, an entire outfit is recognized with the Sam Coleman Award for their achievements and one youth receives the Roger Q. Landers Trail Boss Award. The youth learn to work together to realize their goals and complete the curriculum while still having fun.
Public speaking is a daily activity, culminating with the top six speakers competing for the coveted George Holekamp Public Speaking buckle, sponsored and selected by the Kerr SWCD directors.
And there is fun
Range concepts are woven into the recreation as well, with youth learning to selectively graze like a cow or swimming in one of the most beautiful private springs in the Hill Country while discussing the role of rangeland in the function of that spring. The goal is to tie it all together, all week long. Fellowship and building a network of mentors and professional connections are stressed throughout the week. S’mores around a fire pit, with a guitar strumming in the background after a swim, give the youth time not only to relax, but to build bonds with one another and the team of professionals.
“YRW was another building block that helped me realize that rangeland management is a critical and much needed skill on Texas landscapes and ranches,” says Justin Rader, who attended YRW in 2000 and now operates the 100th Ranch with his wife, Bryn.
Have a further interest in Youth Range Workshop? Find it on Facebook at Texas Section SRM Youth Range Workshop and watch for a new website coming soon. The 2019 application for the 65th Youth Range Workshop is available now at http://tinyurl.com/2019YouthRangeWorkshop.
Evolution and adaptation
The key to the success of YRW lies in keeping the program fresh and meaningful to the youth of today. Soil/water/plant relationships are as old as time itself, but our evolving understanding of those relationships and many new technologies keep the subject matter fresh and exciting. How else can you explain teens excited about soil health at 10 p.m., after a long day of learning in the field?
“I really enjoyed learning how to determine the resource inventory of land because I’m interested in getting a degree in agricultural economics,” says Christophe Perault, of Harper. Perault is this year’s delegate to the HSYF along with Virgil Epperson, Rocksprings, and Taryn Mitchell, Sanderson.
Not so long ago, soil health, carbon sequestration and effective water use were not terms used in the art and science of range management. Youth Range Workshop owes its long-standing success to the ability to change and adapt, while laying the foundation necessary to understanding sound land stewardship. That challenge is what entices the team members to strive to put on an exceptional program year after year.
As with anything that stands the test of time, YRW relies upon generous financial sponsors and support for youth registration fees. Texas Section SRM is proud of the partnerships that come together and put this program together year after year.
As those kids who were shouting about soil health hit the showers and head to their cabins to grab some much-needed sleep, Jason Loeffler shares why he remains involved in YRW. “I return to YRW every year to lead the spiritual portion of the camp because the core teachings of rangeland stewardship are deeply rooted in the spirit of the Word.”
The smiles are broad, the enthusiasm infectious, and everyone from the campers to the volunteers are exhausted; another successful day of Youth Range Workshop is in the books.
Rangeland Conservationists is excerpted from the December 2018 issue of The Cattleman magazine.
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