Conservation corps plays important role in maintaining trails, streams
September 21, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
Members turn corps stint into eco-centric jobs
The teams maintaining the trails on state and King County lands near Issaquah often include members of the Washington Conservation Corps — a fresh-out-of-college bunch eager to earn experience in the environmental field.
Like the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, the 21st-century equivalent enlists young adults to tackle habitat and infrastructure projects.
“There are a lot of good public works projects that they’re doing out there,” state Department of Ecology spokesman Curt Hart said.
Members from far-flung corners of the United States populate the program. Some recruits, unable to land a job in a sour economy, turned to the program to burnish their résumés and earn a steady paycheck. Other members brought a background in environmental studies to the role. Many expressed a desire to learn about life in the Pacific Northwest.
In addition to trail projects, crews yank invasive plants from public lands, plant native flora and restore creek habitat.
Washington Conservation Corps teams conducted trail maintenance on Tiger Mountain in the past year. Earlier projects included habitat restoration along Issaquah Creek.
Members also race to disaster-stricken areas to render assistance.
“Come rain, floods, shine, fires, they’re there,” Hart said.
In April, the state Department of Ecology dispatched 30 Washington Conservation Corps members and supervisors to clean up debris and set up shelters after a tornado tore through Yazoo City, Miss.
For residents in the aftermath of a natural disaster, “our WCC crews may be the first government people these people see,” Hart said.
Commitment to service
Though the state program is now part of AmeriCorps — a national service program created in 1993 — the Washington Conservation Corps predates the effort by a decade.
Launched in 1983 in the aftermath of a recession, the founders modeled the program after the long-disbanded Civilian Conservation Corps as a job-training program for young adults in a tough economy. The program is part of the state Department of Ecology.
Members ages 18-25 earn $8.55 per hour, receive basic health benefits and — upon completion of a year of service — receive $5,350 for education.
County Ecologist Paul Adler manages the Washington Conservation Corps in King County. He said the typical candidate is interested in environmental work and community service.
The prospect of a challenge attracted Michigan native Taylor Hernandez to the program and to the Evergreen State.
“I have a whole new skill set that I didn’t have before,” the Michigan State University graduate said, as she stood at a job site along Taylor Creek, not far from the Cedar Hills Regional Landfill, in early September.
Hernandez also earned a wilderness first responder certificate — and enhanced biceps. Most of the work undertaken by the crews is physically intense.
Washington Conservation Corps alumnus Micah Bonkowski said the corps stint served as a priceless learning experience and as a springboard to later environmental jobs. Nowadays, he serves as the resource conservation coordinator in the Issaquah Resource Conservation Office — the city agency responsible for ensuring Issaquah meets sustainability goals.
Bonkowski entered the program after graduating from Seattle University in 1999 and then landed a job helping King County combat noxious weeds.
The stint as corps member included a fair share of planting — a task made more difficult after the weather turned cold.
“It’s December and it’s freezing, and you’re trying to plant and the plants are frozen solid in their pots,” Bonkowski recalled.
But the program also offered perspective to the recent college graduate.
“At the end of the day, it’s very rewarding to look back over the site and see what you’ve accomplished in one day,” he said.
Hernandez and other corps members gathered in early September along a stretch of Taylor Creek.
The task: setting up fencing to prevent beavers from damming a stretch of the creek near roads. In the past, beaver dams contributed to flooding at a nearby intersection.
Dressed in chest waders, yellow hardhats and matching navy T-shirts, the team sloshed through the creek to set up a beaver barrier of wire fencing.
“I know one day I’m probably going to have a boring, 9-to-5 job,” corps member Lawrence Frazier said at the job site.
So, the Tacoma native and University of Washington community and environmental planning grad applied to the Washington Conservation Corps to pick up hands-on experience after a fruitless job search.
Some alumni, like Bonkowski, parlay the experience into eco-centric or outdoors-centered positions.
“I had the book knowledge, but no hands-on experience,” alumna Melody Abel, a trail management assistant at Mount Rainier National Park, said in response to e-mailed questions. “I was looking for outside work where I could get my hands dirty, learn skills and meet as many professionals from as many fields as possible.”
Abel became “hooked” after she said she “saw how WCC made a huge difference in sustaining our environment” — and on helping young adults prepare for the future.
“Mount Rainier is an amazing office,” she said. “I don’t want to leave work, even when my work day is done.”
On the Web
Learn more about the Washington Conservation Corps at www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/sea/wcc.
By the numbers
Since 1994, the Washington Conservation Corps has undertaken projects to accomplish the following:
-Plant more than 7 million native trees and shrubs across the state.
-Construct or repair almost 2,600 miles of trails and boardwalks — or the equivalent of hiking from Seattle to New York City.
-Create 700 acres of fish and wildlife habitat.
-Provide 112,000 hours of emergency response service — about 7,500 hours per year, on average.
-Recruit and manage almost 58,000 volunteers to work on environmental projects across the state.
-Teach environmental education topics to more than 180,000 students.
-Build more than 1.6 million feet of fencing to help landowners keep livestock out of state streams and rivers.
-Open more than 225 miles of habitat in salmon-bearing streams.
-Help residents in almost 1,600 low-income and senior housing units shrink their carbon footprints and save money on their utility bills.
Source: State Department of Ecology
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.