The Future of Conservation typography
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By Julie Judkins and Chloë de Camara

The phrase “love you” doesn’t exist in the Cherokee language. It must be claimed with the pronoun, GeGayYouAh, or I love you, to communicate its significance and meaning. Gil Jackson, of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, taught NextGen Forest Ambassadors words in his first language of Cherokee, along with other legends connected to lands that we now call our national forests and the Appalachian Trail.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) co-hosts NextGen Summits that strengthen community connection to the landscape and create conservation networks to expand employment and stewardship opportunities for young people. The Next Generation Forest Ambassador program is a four-day/three-night youth summit hosted by the Georgia Mountains Children’s Forest Network, a coalition of partners hosting programs to connect young people to the outdoors in Georgia. Approximately 25 teenage ambassadors come together annually to learn about public lands, leadership, careers, and how to be “change leaders” as stewards in their communities. Paired one to one with mentors in conservation careers and influencers, ambassadors complete stewardship projects and are awarded small stipends for successful completion.

Due to COVID-19, the 2020 NextGen Summit was moved to a virtual format. Ambassadors attended four virtual sessions together that covered core themes such as outdoor access, Leave No Trace principles, and how to best serve their communities by being an ambassador. Each ambassador also attended at least two Ambassador’s Choice sessions. The menu of sessions led by area experts included Gil’s Cherokee language and legends session; Jason Ward, famous naturalist and host of his own bird show, who let participants know anyone can be a birder; Forest Hilyer, who guided participants on a virtual nature hike; ethnobotanist Marc Williams, who identified trees with ambassadors; and an Artdoors session supported ephemeral art inspired by the Organic Artist. Each ambassador was provided with a toolbox of resources, day packs, and books for success while working towards completing their stewardship project.

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From left: ATC board member and director of operations with Atlanta’s Greening Youth Foundation Eboni Preston, ATC’s director of education and outreach Julie Judkins, and NextGen mentor Khidhar McKenzie at Amicalola Falls State Park during the 2019 NextGen Forest Ambassadors Summit

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From left: ATC board member and director of operations with Atlanta’s Greening Youth Foundation Eboni Preston, ATC’s director of education and outreach Julie Judkins, and NextGen mentor Khidhar McKenzie at Amicalola Falls State Park during the 2019 NextGen Forest Ambassadors Summit

Ambassadors led over 250 hours of stewardship projects in their communities. These teens oversaw projects that included environmental outreach and education across four social media platforms, two podcasts, six trash pick-up events, a scavenger hunt, informational flyers and identification guides, support of local organizations, an online fundraiser for three nonprofits, and creation of original art and music. One even created a Twitter bot — a search engine to respond to tweets in real time to help people locate public lands near them.

The experience allows for connection, albeit virtual, among mentors, alumni, partner organizations, instructors, and of course the participants. Collaboration is integral to the success of each summit. By bringing individuals and organizations together with different experiences and skills, we are leveraging ATC resources, building social networks, and bridging opportunity gaps in communities for young people.

NextGen Forest Ambassador Spotlight typography
Sixteen-year-old Avery Adams first set foot on the Appalachian Trail in 2019 after he was selected to be a member of Next Generation Forest Ambassador Youth Summit. During the four-day summit, Avery was introduced to outdoor stewardship and received hands-on training to help him connect and inspire others. He got to camp, have fun hiking, and found ways to connect other young people to public lands. After the summit, Avery and his fellow participants were asked to complete a 20-hour stewardship project that highlighted their unique experiences and perspectives. Avery was even invited by the U.S. Forest Service to introduce a film at a screening during the Wild and Scenic Film Festival later that year.

Avery described the whole experience as “life-changing” and said it was the happiest he’s ever been. “I was expecting a bunch of weird strangers who have a weird taste in the outdoors,” he says. “[But] when I got there, I realized that these people are just like me in that they don’t go outdoors much either.” Avery discussed how he woke up every day excited about what he would learn next. After the summit concluded, he thoughtfully described how NextGen had made him realize how much more there was to life.

Due to COVID-19, Avery hasn’t been able to get out to the woods as much as he would like but has every intention of getting back to public lands as soon as he can. Even amid a global pandemic, Avery stepped up and came back to help with the 2020 virtual NextGen Forest Ambassadors to serve as an “alumni ambassador” motivating this year’s cohorts through unprecedented circumstances.

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NextGen Forest ambassadors Eli Rogers (left) and Avery Adams (right) on a hike to the Len Foote Hike Inn as part of the 2019 NextGen Forest Ambassadors Summit
With Avery’s natural charisma and creativity, it’s hard to imagine his future without a tie to public lands. “When I get older, I want to be a fireman…I want to balance that and be employed with the U.S. Forest Service, or [a] non-profit, specifically connecting people with the outdoors,” he says. And he encourages novice users of public lands to not be timid when it comes to these new areas of interest and opportunities. “Going to work and school is not all this world has to offer,” says Avery. “There are thousands and thousands of acres of land that can change a person. It did for me.”
Notes from a NextGen Mentor typography
By Khidhar McKenzie

Every year, I get more and more inspired by the next generation of leaders and I know that the world is in good hands. In 2017 I was a part of an internship program through the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) called the Conservation Leadership Corps. The program did more than just reintroduce me to the beauty of the outdoors. It showed me how critical conservation and sustainability are in a constantly changing world.

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Khidhar teaching Leave No Trace principles at Amicalola Falls State Park
I was somewhat reluctant when I agreed to be a mentor for the I group of teen NextGen Forest Ambassadors in 2019. Two items at the top of my recipe for success: my love of nature combined with some amateur comedy skills. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed being with the group. The four days we all spent together was a masterful mix of creativity, education, and innovation. Everything was paced accordingly so no one felt rushed into an unknown territory. Time was dedicated to eating, learning, socializing, sharing, and eating. Eating was very important. One thing that gave me unexpected joy was witnessing how dedicated and knowledgeable the ambassadors were — leading me to many “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that” moments.
While the weekend was still going on, I was already thinking of ways to clear my schedule for the program in 2020. When I was asked to come back, it was a no brainer. With the COVID-19 pandemic happening, worries of how the program would work crossed my mind. Luckily it was in the hands of some of the most smart and caring people in conservation. The time of the virtual program was extended from four days to a couple of months so everyone would have enough time to adjust to it and this strange new world. This actually gave the ambassadors more time to simmer on ideas for their stewardship projects.

Being a mentor meant being available to discuss concerns about classes, meetings, and assisting with brainstorming stewardship projects. One important aspect was how to recreate and respect the outdoors. Every year the program covers Leave No Trace principals. These principles provide a guide on how to take care of the environment as it relates to whatever outdoor activity you may be doing. This is usually taught with help from a brilliant mind (in this case me). After those principles are reviewed, all the other cool classes come into play like ArtDoors Nature Art, Tree ID, Bird Walk, Nature Walk, and Hunting for Treasures. My challenge to others is to find a connection with the outdoors and people who care about it just as much.