Rocky Mountain Conservancy High School Leadership Corps: Adventures in the Backcountry Learning and Exploring

The Rocky Mountain Conservancy High School Leadership Corps (HSLC) just concluded another successful summer by hosting Colorado high school students for an 11-day immersive outdoor experience in Rocky Mountain National Park combining adventure, public service, and education in professional and life skills.

Seventeen young adults gained hands-on experience working with Conservancy field coordinators and park professionals on service projects and personal learning. Participants spent half of their time working on recreation and conservation field projects and the other half in personal and professional development, including gaining a better understanding of what a potential career in the public lands and conservation space could look like. The program also includes plenty of time for fun, including backcountry hikes and exploring Trail Ridge Road.

“The Leadership Corps is an awesome experience for students to get outside of their comfort zone and also meet and work with people from a variety of places and backgrounds,” said Maddy Brunson, HSLC field coordinator. Brunson herself knows a thing or two about getting outside of comfort zones having already traveled extensively, including spending five months exploring New Zealand.

Participants receive full uniforms from the hats on their heads to the boots on their feet, $400 stipends upon completion, free gear rentals, and the experience of backpacking and living in a tent in RMNP. By providing gear and uniforms, the Conservancy removes a major financial barrier to young people in getting outdoors and developing their love and knowledge of natural places.

While the HSLC program was launched in 2017, a pause during the COVID pandemic offered the opportunity to completely overhaul the program and ensure the schedule was packed with meaningful outdoor experiences and opportunities for personal growth.

“We’re looking for HSLC to be a positive, life-changing experience,” said Ian Stafford, director of Stewardship and Policy at the Conservancy. “We bring together a diverse group of students to live and camp in RMNP as a unit, with a leadership and teamwork component to daily living. At camp, they spend time journaling, taking ownership over the day’s responsibilities, and working together to complete chores. The program culminates in a celebratory picnic with their families.”

Participants Shira Nathan and Zoe Kugler, both from Lafayette, Colo., but who attend different high schools, said their favorite experience was doing a three-day backcountry “hitch” to the Comanche Wilderness in the Roosevelt National Forest adjacent to RMNP to build a log bridge across Little Beaver Creek. Nathan said they enjoyed gaining some practical skills like learning to use a vintage crosscut saw. Kugler said the experience taught her about teamwork.

“We had to work together to carry huge rocks down the trail, “Kugler said. “You’ve got to talk and work together and make sure no one is getting their feet squished.” Kugler also said she learned a lot from joining a group where she didn’t know anyone at first. “I had to learn how to talk to people that are different than me and I had to use my ‘social battery’ accordingly.”

While the HSLC is a wrap for Summer 2023, the Conservancy stewardship team’s work continues, reviewing participant and partner feedback, and already beginning planning and preparations for next summer’s sessions. They encourage interested family members and students to look ahead also by visiting the Rocky Mountain Conservancy website and noting when the next application period opens.

“One of the very few requirements for this program is that applicants live in the state of Colorado. We’ve intentionally removed as many barriers as possible to get a diverse and interesting group of students into the outdoors,” said Stafford.

The High School Leadership Corps is funded through donations raised through sales of the Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado license plate, along with some financial support from the National Parks Foundation. The nonprofit Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK) provides administrative support and assists with recruiting participants. To support the High School Leadership Corps and other educational programs for young people, visit RMConservancy.org website and donate to the best use or Next Generation Funds.

Shira Nathan from Lafayette said their favorite experiences were a three-day hitch working with Poudre Wilderness Volunteers to build a backcountry bridge, meeting cool people, learning practical new skills, and going backpacking for the first time. Shira was one of six participants from Centaurus H.S.
Quiness Jackson from Montbello High School in Denver worked with RMNP vegetation crews to remove invasive species from Moraine Park in July. The immersive 11-day program is designed to connect high school-aged youth of all backgrounds with the outdoors
Zev Gatto from Windsor, CO, was stoked to take a 10-mile hike in RMNP and see how his endurance had increased. HSLC participants are outfitted head-to-toe with uniforms and camping equipment and learn backcountry skills and life skills such as resume building and financial literacy.