Jay Watson

Jay Watson, Western Regional Director for the Student Conservation Association talks about the work students did over the Summer for the Angeles Wildfire Recovery Project at the Wildwood Picnic Area in Big Tujunga Canyon in the Angeles National Forest on Friday, August 26, 2011. (Raul Roa/Staff Photographer)

The Wildwood Picnic Area, located about five miles into the Angeles National Forest along Big Tujunga Canyon Road, is starting to look like its old self again. A dozen freshly painted picnic benches are neatly positioned in the shade, and thick green vegetation lines Big Tujunga Creek.

The scene here now stands in stark contrast to two years ago, after the popular spot was consumed by the Station fire.

The revitalization is due, in part, to collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service and the Student Conservation Assn., the nonprofit group that taps youth for paid summer jobs to protect and restore national parks.

Last summer, the organization deployed one team of college-age workers and two teams of local high school students to the Angeles National Forest to restore recreational facilities such as picnic areas, campgrounds and trails, said Western Regional Manager Jay Watson.

This summer, a single four-person team focused primarily on removing invasive plants and improving wildlife habitats.

“When we got here two years ago to help reopen this picnic area, it had been burned over,” Watson said. “There was a lot of soil and rock that had washed off the hillside and had buried stuff. We dug out fire pits and barbecues, and repainted picnic tables and repainted buildings.”

The Student Conservation Assn. is one of numerous organizations that have lent a hand in the wake of the Station fire — the Pacific Crest Trail Assn., Sierra Club, Tree People and the Boy Scouts of America all have pitched in.

It’s not easy work. Participants spend four days a week, 10 hours a day in different corners of the forest moving rocks, digging up invasive plants and laying trail markers.

“We didn’t have cloud coverage,” said Melissa Madrid, 30, who led a crew of eight high school boys last summer. “We were on the south-facing slope, so the sun beat down on us all day.”

The living conditions aren’t easy, either. First-year participants live for weeks at the Chilao campground outfitted with little more than portable toilets and a couple of fire pits.

And there were plenty of ill-fated encounters with unfriendly plants, such as the poodle-dog bush.

“It happened nearly every day,” said Danny Saunders, 20. “For a couple of weeks there I had a rash all over my upper body. It is really itchy, it is hard to sleep. I went to the hospital a couple of times to get steroids.”

But there were also plenty of opportunities for hands-on learning, participants said.

“None of us really had been to California before, so this was really interesting, coming out here to the mountains and starting something completely new,” said 26-year-old Wisconsin native Brian Hill.

On one occasion, a Forest Service ranger accidentally ran over a rattlesnake with his truck. The students quickly turned the incident into a biology lesson — and a meal.

Few students said they were motivated to take on the job because of the money, instead pointing to the reward in seeing the transformation of the forest.

“It doesn’t look like you are walking into something dead anymore,” Madrid said.