Alumni Name: Ashley Bouchahine
Dates Served: June 2020 – September 2020
What roles was Ashley in: Corpsmember
Location: Pacific West Central
Q: What were you doing before ACE?
A: Before ACE I had started a career in the nonprofit field doing database management and development at a nonprofit music venue in California. I loved my time there and learned so much about what it takes to run and support a successful nonprofit. I moved to CA from New England, and had made a lot of new friends who were involved in environmental and conservation work. I learned about the environmental issues facing California like the drought and wildfires, threatened wildlife species, air pollution and more. At the same time, I saw our national public lands come under threat, like with the reduction of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments among others. I decided I wanted to shift my focus away from the arts and pursue a career in conservation. That’s when I found out about ACE.
Q: How did you hear about ACE?
A: I found ACE while looking at conservation opportunities on Idealist.org. After many years sitting behind a desk doing intense computer work, getting to work outside in beautiful parks and wilderness areas sounded like a dream. It seemed like the perfect way to do something fun while at the same time starting on a meaningful career change.
Q: Walk me through your time at ACE – What was your favorite aspect of being an ACE Crew member?
A: My time at ACE was entirely at the Pacific Central Branch, and most of the hitches I had were in the Santa Cruz County area working with California State Parks. This felt really special to me because before coming to ACE I had lived in Santa Cruz for over six years, and now I was getting to work at parks I spent a lot of time in. One particular set of trails we worked on—The Berry Creek Falls Loop—was my number one spot I would bring friends and family when they were visiting. So there was something very satisfying about getting to work in these places that I already had a personal connection with.
But it’s impossible to talk about my time at ACE without talking about the CZU Fire. My crew was out working in the Ventana Wilderness when we had to evacuate from a different fire that was making our work area too smoky to continue working in. We had a 6-mile hike out from our camp to the trailhead in the middle of the day in the 80 degree August heat, and the air was so thick with smoke that the sun was just a dim copper penny in the sky. When we finished that hike, sweaty and exhausted, all we wanted to do was head back to campus. But once at the trailhead we learned Pacific Central had been issued a mandatory evacuation. They had something like 45 minutes between the warning and the mandatory evacuation, when usually people get hours sometimes days—if you live in a fire area you know how little time that is. So ACE put us up in a hotel while we all waited to see what was going to happen.
A few days later, we learned that structures on the campus had caught fire and many of the cabins, including mine, had been destroyed. The fire was so devastating that it was not even safe enough to return to the campus for another month because of extensive damage on the road leading up to Boulder Creek. When we did finally get back, we saw the extent of the destruction. Our beloved ACE Campus was gone.
While this is undoubtedly a tragedy, there are some positive things that came from this I will carry with me for the rest of my life. For one, the ACE staff supported us 100% through this difficult time. They made sure we were housed, they got us meals and snacks, they brought us puzzles and games to play in our downtime. They continue to help us through the very difficult process of dealing with the insurance claims—many on my crew lost everything since we were off-site and not able to grab any valuables during the evacuation. I am so grateful to the ACE staff for really doing everything they could to support us.
And I’m most grateful for my wonderful and supportive crew. Before the fire, we were already a close-knit group—close in the way that working and cooking and living together brings people that many ACE’rs I’m sure are familiar with. But after the fire—after a month of being displaced together, crying and laughing and getting through it together—this crew really feels like my family. Even months later, now that we’re all in different parts of the country, I’m still turning to them for support. Because what we went through was so unique, and if I had to go through it with anyone, I’m glad it was with such an empathetic, conscientious, and compassionate group of people.
Q: What was it like living in ACE CREW PW work location? Any favorite activities? Hikes? What did you do on your off days?
A: I loved the Pacific Central location up at Boulder Creek. The campus was beautiful up in the redwoods, and I loved waking up early before the fog cleared to see the deer hanging out in the field. And I loved being right next to Big Basin and Henry Cowell State Parks, which have some beautiful hikes with old-growth trees. We were also not too far from the city of Santa Cruz, so we’d often head down to the beach to play volleyball or grab some take-out. Activities were pretty limited due to covid, so it was nice to have so many safe outdoor activity options close to the campus.
Q: Did you have a favorite project? Why?
A: My favorite project was in the Ventana Wilderness in Big Sur. First of all it was a backcountry hitch, which I was really hoping to be able to do during my term. And I had wanted to hike this particular trail—the Pine Ridge Trail leading to the Sykes Hotspring—since I had moved to California, but it had been closed for years due to landslides and fires. I was so excited when I found out I was going to be on the crew that was going to open that trail up again. I would have liked to see that project finished, but unfortunately due to the fire my time at ACE ended before the project could be picked up again. But I love seeing my old crewmates and crew leaders back out there working on that trail. Looking forward to getting out there and hiking it when the project is finished.
Q: What was the culture of your ACE division? How do you feel you participated in that culture?
A: Because of the COVID restrictions, my experience of ACE culture was limited to my particular crew. That being said, we were like a family and I’ve never had such a close and supportive work environment as my ACE crew. My favorite were off-day meals we would all cook together, especially our Sunday brunches or special dinners when it was someone’s birthday. We also had a crew Dungeons and Dragons night led by one of our crew leaders. I know it wasn’t the typical experience because COVID kept us from doing anything else on our off days, but I’m actually glad we kind of got stuck doing everything together. It felt like being a kid at summer camp. And I’m grateful that ACE and our crew took the COVID measures seriously. It was such a relief to have a little pocket of the world that felt safe during this time where we could work and hang out and still be insulated from everything going on in the world.
Q: In what ways did ACE shape your life personally and professionally?
A: I have so much more confidence in my skills and ability to tackle new problems from my time at ACE. Professionally, so many opportunities that I had never considered before have opened up for me. And personally, I have gained so many relationships that I treasure, and I feel like I can handle anything that comes my way knowing they’ve got my back.
Q: How long have you been an ACE Alumni? Where are you now?
A: I finished my term in September 2020, and now I’m back on the east coast applying for jobs at conservation organizations all around the country.
Q: What are some of your favorite extracurricular activities?
A: I love hiking and climbing, though both of those are getting harder to do in New England as the weather gets colder. I’m also an avid stargazer, and have traveled many thousands of miles for celestial events, including two total solar eclipses and a number meteor showers. Coming up soon is the Great Conjunction (December 21, 2020) where Jupiter and Saturn will come together for the first time in 20 years. I bought a hiking telescope and plan to do some winter camping to hopefully get a good view of the event. Also I love knitting, and am currently working on a sweater for my brother for the holidays.
Q: What excites you most about becoming an ACE Alumni Ambassador?
A: I’m really excited to share my experience and to talk to people who are interested in conservation. Even if you’re not considering making it your career, conservation work is so important, and the skills and knowledge you gain through ACE can be taken to so many different fields and into your life personally.
Q: If a prospective ACE member were to ask you what the benefits of joining ACE are, what would you say?
A: I would say depending on what you want to get out of your experience (and what you put into it) ACE has a lot of benefits. ACE can be where you make a lot of friends and professional connections for a career in conservation. It can be where you learn a wide variety of skills, from handling tools, trailworks, habitat restoration, etc., to working on a team, communication, and creative problem solving and leadership skills. There’s also getting to work and camp in some of the most beautiful places in the country, often when they’re closed to the outside public. There really is so much that ACE offers, more than I even knew going into the program, which is why I’m so eager to share my experience with others.