Thursday, September 12, 2019

A Living, Growing Memorial to Brother Yusuf

I recently went back to an area where the NYS DEC Forest Rangers and Foresters had recruited us to help plant young potted and bare root trees from the DEC’s Saratoga Tree Nursery on an eroding section of Adirondack Forest Preserve. The planting took place seven growing seasons ago. How were they doing today?

Among the tree planters were Brother Yusuf Abdul-Wasi (Joseph Burgess) and his team of youth and adult counselors and teachers from the Green Tech Charter School in Albany and Youth Ed-Venture and Nature Network or YENN, and several volunteers from Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

My colleagues and I met Yusuf when he was a youth counselor at the Albany Boys and Girls Club. He was seeking to expand his discovered life’s work to help urban young men  and women become not just aware but comfortable in the woods, the waters and the mountains of our state; and not merely comfortable, but to gain a sense of expanded opportunity in their lives that might someday evolve from many positive exposures to the great outdoors.

This man of action had a mission and was not to be denied. Later, he went to work for the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation, DEC, to help to recruit and to diversify the color and the backgrounds of the youngsters attending DEC Summer Camps. Yusuf served on the board of the Children and Nature Network ( . He had developed a national and international reputation for his efforts to mentor urban young people and expose them to the wilder places he loved himself; have them disconnect from their phones;  connect with their environment; and cooperate as working unit to hike up to a peak, set up and take down a campsite, read a topo map or a wild river, ski or kayak, or in this case, plant a whole lot of young trees on a very chilly series of mornings near the Hudson River south of Warrensburg around Arbor Day, 2012.

On my return in recent days, I found the many hundreds of trees the young people planted under the direction of DEC Forest Ranger Chuck Kabrehl and Forester Tad Norton – mostly white pine and larch – now 10 to 12 ft. tall and thriving. Thanks to the DEC’s planning and direction the young trees are now serving valuable (and intended) public purposes of stopping erosion,  steering foot traffic,  cooling the immediate environment through shading and evapotranspiration and taking in carbon dioxide. DEC Forest Ranger Kabrehl writes me today that: “We really did make an impact, and the environment in that area is unquestionably healthier that it would have been otherwise.”

I consider this small example of Adirondack forest stewardship and habitat restoration a living, growing memorial to the late Brother Yusuf, who passed in 2014. His Youth Ed-Venture and Nature Network (  is a “strategic partnership of individuals, organizations and agencies dedicated to increase awareness and engagement of the young people of the Capital District of Albany New York and our Nation, with the common interest in conserving our natural environment, expanding the number and quality of opportunities for children, youth, young adults and families to reconnect with nature and the environment.” I’m happy that Adirondack Wild continues to be one of YENN’s partners thanks to Ms. Cherrie Burgess and Mr. Jaimz Edwards, who have recruited young people to help with several other Adirondack restoration projects under the direction of DEC, most recently on Thomas Mountain.

Photos, from above: DEC Forest Ranger Chuck Kabrehl instructs students on how to properly plant potted trees; the hillside just after planting, Arbor Day 2012; the same hillside today, 2019; Brother Yusuf, 2012.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

3 Responses

  1. Don Pachner says:

    Thank you for rermembering Brother Yussef Burgess’ contributions to the park and to efforts to educate and bring underserved youth into the wilds. I would add that Brother Yussef not only introduced his students/charges to the concept of wilderness, wilderness activities and service, he also had them thinking like future scientists and doctors, an amazing feat that his dedication and mission and unique personality/perceptions/background were equipped for. He was a remarkable man and educator who is sorely missed today.

  2. Boreasfisher says:

    To grow up in a claustrophobic urban environment and then be exposed to the clean open air of the Adirondacks must be such a formative liberating experience for these kids. Thanks for shedding light on this man’s remarkable legacy.

  3. Vanessa says:

    Lovely article for my Friday morning! RIP Brother Yusuf, the trees you planted will be your legacy for 100s of years 🙂 <3

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