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Volunteers helping preserve natural habitat in Johnson County

AmeriCorps team removes invasive species at Turkey Creek Nature Preserve

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SOLON — Although they may never personally reap the benefits, a team of volunteers — with hometowns in places stretching from Alaska to Maine to Florida to Puerto Rico — has spent the last month preserving natural habitat in Johnson County all in the name of building a stronger community.

The group of 10 volunteers is part of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, a team-based service program, working since early August out of Vinton. Much of their time in Iowa has been spent focused on environmental projects overseen by the Bur Oak Land Trust, an Iowa City-based organization that accepts land donations and then works to preserve the land as natural habitat. The trust maintains and preserves nine local natural areas for the enjoyment and education of the public, and holds 14 conservation easements.

On Friday, the AmeriCorps team spent the day removing invasive plant species from the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve on Sugar Bottom Road in Solon.

“We got some good work done and learned a lot too,” said Luke Lauer, of Morgantown, Pennsylvania, a member of the volunteer team. “We get a variety of work, but this is the first in-depth invasive species removal we’ve done. It was our first time working with a conservation group, which was cool.”

Lauer said the team is excited to help open new green space for Iowa residents.

“After our service work is complete, I hope the land can flourish without invasive species and members of the community, now and in the future, can get out and enjoy the natural beauty of the preserve,” he said.

Christian Jimenez, of Miami, an AmeriCorps volunteer, said grinding through the physical labor required to clear the plants builds character and community.

“It made me feel a lot better about who I am as a person, knowing the people who visit these properties can enjoy them,” he said.

Team leader Ashley Applegate, of Memphis, Tennessee, said although many people may not realize the impact AmeriCorps has on an area, it’s rewarding to know they helped the community.

“I think that’s kind of the best part of it,” she said.

John VanRybroek, site manager at Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, said the volunteers removed invasive plants like honeysuckle and autumn olive that shades the forest floor and prevents desirable species like oak trees from growing.

The group also hid geocaches, including small toys or items with the AmeriCorps logo. They hope these items attract those involved in geocaching to the area.

“We have to have people come out and enjoy nature. That’s the ultimate goal,” VanRybroek said, adding it is rewarding to see young people care about conservation.

He especially hopes the efforts of the AmeriCorps team lead more youth to find and spend time at the preserve.

“That really charges us up, charges me up,” VanRybroek said. “We hope we’re not doing this for nothing.”

AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps and its FEMA Corps unit engage up to 2,800 young Americans in a full-time, 10-month commitment to service each year. AmeriCorps NCCC members address critical needs related to natural and other disasters, infrastructure improvement, environmental stewardship and conservation and urban and rural development.

The team working out of Vinton is scheduled to wrap up its time in Iowa on Wednesday. The next stop for the team is Bemidji, Minnesota, where volunteers are to work on an urban garden.

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