Katie Jo Tilton spent two summers with the Youth Conservation Program, and was inspired to pursue a career in conservation. Now a college graduate with a degree in forestry, she reflects on the impact of her summers in Grand Teton National Park.
Albert Einstein once said, “Look into nature and you will understand everything better.” There is no better statement to describe my two summers as a member of the Youth Conservation Program at Grand Teton National Park. At age 16, I was a regular teenager looking for summer employment. Alongside my peers, I considered places such as the supermarket and local restaurants. My mom saw the Youth Conservation Program advertised on the local news. I excitedly applied. The next thing I knew I was living and working in the most beautiful place I had ever seen. At the time, GTNP was the second national park I had visited. As anyone who has ever seen the splendor of the Grand under a blue sky knows, there is nothing more magical.
My first day at the park I met my amazing team of leaders. I still remember Max, Nat, Melissa, Elizabeth, and Cory very well because they were so influential in my life. They taught me the tricks of the trade; how to properly use a shovel, cut down a tree, sharpen a Pulaski, dig a trail, and even tar a roof. Alongside my lifelong role-models, I learned the importance of perseverance on cold and rainy days, long hikes, and while carrying heavy tools across steep landscapes. I learned how to work with a crew, some of which I still talk to today. I will never forget the team bonding exercises that the crew leaders created for us, my personal favorite being the YCP talent show. I learned how to connect with nature, to care for the land, and to be mindful of the world around me. During my time at GTNP, I learned from plant and wildlife biologists, conservationists, historic preservationists, ecologists, rangers, park managers, horse packers, and educators.
Prior to my hire at GTNP, I had considered becoming a structural firefighter. I never loved school, much less the thought of going to university for 4 more years. However, my experience with YCP gave me the passion to pursue a degree in forestry at Colorado State University. Years after, the experience and tools that I received as a member of YCP allowed me to work in Olympic National Forest, Mesa Verde National Park, and as part of the Ute Mountain Environmental Program. This past December I graduated from Colorado State University, and am currently applying for positions at national parks and national forests across the country. I have found my true passion and purpose in life, and I owe it all to my experience as a member of the Youth Conservation Program.
I wish that all young people had the ability to experience Grand Teton National Park through the Youth Conservation Program. It is truly an invaluable experience that has had a lasting experience on so many lives.