A 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Will Combat Youth & Veteran Unemployment

conservation corps members plant tree photo© San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps

By Mary Ellen Ardouny

The latest jobs report from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics has given Americans little hope to believe that our country will emerge from its economic doldrums soon. This summer, however, one bright spot could emerge.

Earlier this year, a Federal Advisory Committee appointed by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture commenced work on creating a set of recommendations to establish and implement a 21st century Conservation Service Corps modeled after the Great Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). I am honored to serve on this committee, and think it presents an enormous opportunity for young men and women, as well as veterans, to serve their country at home in a beneficial way for themselves and our economy [Disclaimer: my views are my own and are not not to be interpreted as the views of the Committee].

For those who are not familiar with its history, the CCC was a federal jobs program that enrolled young men nationwide in an effort to build parks, trails, visitor centers, and complete conservation projects. In addition to building a significant portion of America’s parks and conservation infrastructure, Corps members received vital job skills and were paid wages on a monthly basis, a portion of which were sent home to their families. During WWII, the CCC program came to an end as federal priorities shifted during wartime, and many CCC members had already left for jobs and to serve in the military.

It therefore seems appropriate that as more of our troops return home today, we put our veterans’ training and expertise to use at home once more. According to BLS, unemployment crept up last month to 8.2%. This number is even higher for returning veterans (12.7%) and for youth (16.9%). Additionally, in some low-income minority communities unemployment rates remain as high as 50%. The effects of long-term unemployment on these Americans not only negatively affects their own lives, but has well-documented impacts of significance on the national economy. In fact, unemployed young people are costing Americans billions of tax dollars.

A 21st Century Conservation Service Corps would help to remedy this problem, all while addressing a significant amount of deferred maintenance on America’s public lands in a cost-effective way. It’s estimated that the “backlog” of work that needs to occur in places like national parks, national forests, and on wildlife refuges exceeds $75 billion. One federal study showed that Corps can complete the work at 56% of the cost that it would take through other means. Of course, it’s not entirely fair to say that this work isn’t already occurring. Claiming the historic CCC as their model, there is already a network of federal, state, and local nonprofit Corps that exists nationwide, enrolling approximately 30,000 young people annually. The national AmeriCorps program has also helped to significantly benefit youth and communities, and has proven to be a vital component of many Corps programs.

The results of a recent six-year study evaluating the impact of 21 Corps indicated that they are effective: educational enrollment and employment by corps members increased from 50% to 67% over the course of the study, and nearly two-thirds of program participants (63.9 percent) said that their participation in a Corps helped them secure a job, and three out of four (77.1 percent) said the experience gave them a job-hunting advantage. These kinds of benefits are in addition to the stipends and wages that participants receive and in turn, reinvest in local economies.

conservation corps members stream restoration photo© Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa

Some examples of projects that are scheduled to occur this summer that would be similar to projects completed by a future 21st Century Conservation Service Corps include 1) the restoration of three ponds in the Angeles National Forest that provide habitat for the threatened California red-legged frog by the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, 2) the ongoing repair of the eastern boundary fence around Glacier National Park by the Montana Conservation Corps, 3) the work of Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa to repair the essential Feldtmann Ridge Trail of Isle Royale National Park that allows visitors access to the interior of the island, 4) the restoration of historic CCC cabins and prairie habitat by American Youthworks’ crews in North Texas’s LBJ and Caddo National Grasslands, and 5) wildland firefighting and habitat restoration by veterans fire corps operated by the California Conservation Corps, Southwest Conservation Corps, and the Student Conservation Association.

So how can you help ensure that the vision for a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps becomes a reality? This week, the Federal Advisory Committee will submit its recommendations and report to Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. You can urge both of their departments to implement the Corps by writing emails, letters, and making phone calls. You can also contact your Congressional representatives and inform them that you support efforts to implement this productive and vital cost-saving effort. It will put many more veterans and young people back to work, boosting morale while growing the nation’s short and long-term tax base. It will also help to restore some of America’s beloved national treasures.

Mary Ellen Ardouny is Interim CEO of The Corps Network, the national association of Service and Conservation Corps.

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