This Cincinnati Program Removes Invasive Species — and Barriers for Youth

The Mill Creek Alliance’s Green Corps gives young people interested in environmental stewardship a chance to grow their skills

click to enlarge Green Corps members prepare soil for seeding at a community greenhouse. The oak trees and milkweed grown with this soil will either be used to provide sites like Little Duck Creek with native plants or sold to interested buyers. - SETH WEBER
Seth Weber
Green Corps members prepare soil for seeding at a community greenhouse. The oak trees and milkweed grown with this soil will either be used to provide sites like Little Duck Creek with native plants or sold to interested buyers.

The thick vines of invasive winter creeper constrict a tree standing along the edge of Madisonville’s Little Duck Creek, and more tendrils from the vine cover the forest floor along the creek’s trail.

The amount of fast-growing winter creeper and impassable invasive honeysuckle bushes along the creek has become a big problem — one that is seemingly overwhelming without the help of harmful chemicals. But a group of young workers with Mill Creek Alliance’s Green Corps has been able to make short work of the tangle.

The program does more than just cut away some vines. It gives young folks the opportunity to explore careers in environmental stewardship while earning a paycheck — all while hopefully having some fun, too.

“I’m blown away at how safe these folks work, how skilled they are and frankly how fast they work,” says Bill Collins of the Little Duck Creek Task Force.

Collins is passionate about seeing the trail and the forest around it become the hot spot for children and adults it was in his youth. To make the trail walkable again, the Little Duck Creek Task Force received an $8,700 grant from Duke Energy in September 2018. That money has gone to contracting the Green Corps to remove obstructive invasive plants to make way for native species.

In addition to helping with Little Duck Creek and maintaining and improving conditions along the Mill Creek, the Green Corps takes up work all around the city. They’ve been working on a program called Light Up Avondale in which Green Corps members get energy efficient LED bulbs from the Cincinnati Zoo and install them in homes around the neighborhood. They’ve also gone to sites in Northern Kentucky to do work clearing invasive plants.

Mill Creek Alliance’s Tanner Yess helped form the Green Corps in 2016 while he was working with Groundwork Cincinnati, which last year merged with the Millcreek Watershed Council of Communities to form the Mill Creek Alliance. The program is modeled after the Green Team summer program, which trains and gives work experience to high schoolers. Green Corps is the next step up: anyone ages 18 to 24 can join.

Sophie Revis, who is 24, is approaching that cutoff but will be able to stay with the group because she’s a crew leader. While many in the Green Corps joined during high school, Revis learned of the program when Yess came into her environmental studies class at the University of Cincinnati to tell students about the program.

After she graduates from UC this spring, Revis has plans to put her environmental studies degree to use in the Peace Corps, but “these guys are making it hard for me to want to leave,” she says.

Another Green Corps member, Aristotle Buie, now 20, joined Green Team when he was 16. He had an interest in the police academy but missed the deadline for application. Instead, he was placed with the team based on his interests and has stuck with it for the past four years.

“Sometimes they’ll get kids there who are just here for a paycheck, (and) they’ll get kids who sometimes get converted and actually care,” Buie says.

He ended up being one of the kids who cared. Buie says with age comes commitment — those working in the Green Corps seem to be more dedicated to the cause.

Yess says the Green Corps is a workforce development program, and everyone who serves on the team is in agreement that there is plenty of development to be had.

“I think they take the whole workforce development part of this pretty seriously as opposed to us just being a workforce,” says Owen Linville, the youngest member of the Green Corps at 19. “It really isn’t just a job. It really is an education program, too. I like that aspect of it a lot.”

Green Corps members start out at $12 an hour and get up to $15 an hour through certification programs provided by the Mill Creek Alliance.

Anthony Smith, the newest Green Corps member, joined in early February and has been working on getting his chainsaw and herbicide certifications. Smith said missed out on getting a high school diploma because he was focused on selling marijuana for fast money.

“I was focused on just being young,” he says. “I just wanted to have fun, fun, fun, but sooner or later you’ve got to grow up.”

Smith is ready to move on to an engineering career, which he hopes to pursue at Cincinnati State. Until then, he is going to be developing his skills in the Green Corps.

“This is a starting point to where I want to be in life,” he says. “I’m just taking it one step at a time.”

Yess was inspired to create the Green Corps based on a similar program from Northern Kentucky University’s Center for Environmental Restoration.

“It was super impactful and kind of drove the ethos for creating this,” he says.

That program got Yess plenty of networking opportunities, but he said there wasn’t much soft-skill development the likes of which can be found with the Green Corps. The NKU program also focused on restoring areas in Boone County. That’s an entirely different environment, Yess says — “not the concrete jungle that Mill Creek is.”

Yess sees importance in urban conservation not just because it helps to preserve shrinking forests and fields in the city, but because it also works to create stronger communities by reaching people right where they live. Linville is a prime example of this type of community outreach.

“I’ve lived in this neighborhood and along the Mill Creek pretty much my entire life,” he says. “It’s pretty close to home for me, really, literally and emotionally.”

Linville has an interest in horticulture, which fits perfectly with the type of work the Green Corps tends to do. When the team isn’t cutting up honeysuckle or tearing winter creeper out of the ground, they’re growing oak trees and milkweed at a community greenhouse on the west side.

The Green Corps members have no problem getting their hands dirty in some mulch at the greenhouse, but work that allows them to get some exercise outdoors while also learning about conservation is their bread and butter.

“I like the physical aspect of the work. I like working with my hands,” Linville says. “Being out in the woods all day, I’d much prefer that to working in a kitchen or something.”