AmeriCorps and the Modern Conservation Movement

By Mary Ellen Sprenkel

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Developing the next generation of environmental stewards

In Colorado, AmeriCorps members remove invasive species from our public lands. In Charleston, SC, AmeriCorps members reduce energy consumption in low-income homes by providing weatherization services. In Brooklyn, AmeriCorps members harvest crops on the first large-scale urban farm on New York City Housing Authority property.

Throughout the country, thousands of young AmeriCorps members enrolled in the over 100 programs of The Corps Network perform a wide range of environmental conservation projects, but their service is united. When young people serve the environment – whether they are constructing hiking trails, recycling cans and bottles, or planting trees – they also serve their communities and build a brighter future for themselves. Working in crews alongside their peers, corpsmembers in conservation programs learn valuable leadership skills, build confidence, develop a respect for the environment, and gain credentials that can assist them in finding rewarding “green collar” jobs.

AmeriCorps helps make possible The Corps Network’s goal to develop our country’s next, more diverse, generation of environmental stewards. With funding and support from the Corporation for National and Community Service, the member programs of The Corps Network can engage more young people in more communities. It is because of this support that conservation corps can address so many different environmental concerns in landscapes ranging from large cities to small towns to wilderness areas.

It is fitting that in 2014, the same year that AmeriCorps celebrates its 20th anniversary, the world of conservation corps can also celebrate a milestone. Right now, programs of The Corps Network are hard at work on some of the very first projects of the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC). Similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, the 21CSC is an effort to put thousands of young Americans and veterans to work protecting, restoring and enhancing our natural spaces. So far, projects completed by 21CSC programs of The Corps Network have included the training of 50 veterans in wilderness firefighting, as well as the restoration of trails on Native American ancestral lands.

In order to bring the 21CSC to scale and reach Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s goal of engaging 100,000 young people and veterans in conservation service every year, it will take the coordination of many different conservation corps programs, private and nonprofit organizations, and land and water managers. This effort also requires AmeriCorps. Without the support of AmeriCorps, conservation corps programs would not be able to enroll as many corpsmembers. Young people across the country would miss out on the life-changing opportunity to serve their neighborhoods and our environment.

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This year is also important for The Corps Network and AmeriCorps because it marks the first full year of the Opportunity Youth Service Initiative (OYSI). Funded through a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service, the OYSI is one of The Corps Network’s responses to the youth unemployment crisis and the labor market need for green-skilled employees.

At a time when there are some 6.7 million young Americans out of school and out of work, the baby boomer generation is entering retirement and leaving substantial human resource deficits on our public lands. With AmeriCorps, the OYSI connects hundreds of diverse youth from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds with the skills, education and certifications needed to succeed in green industries. By September of this year, OYSI members from 12 different programs of The Corps Network will have built or improved at least 500 miles of trails, restored over 3,500 acres of public lands, and improved the living conditions in at least 2,900 households through providing energy-efficient retrofits and home repairs.

Because of AmeriCorps’ support, the OYSI programs of The Corps Network can engage diverse youth in protecting our natural spaces for future generations to enjoy. Because of support from AmeriCorps, over 350 young OYSI Corpsmembers – over 80 percent of whom have experienced unemployment or economic disadvantages – will learn about “green” career possibilities and earn up to $11,000 for postsecondary education.  

Through AmeriCorps and member programs of The Corps Network, young men and women make a difference in their communities and in their own lives. AmeriCorps gives conservation corps programs the support needed to connect more – and more diverse – young people with environmental service. The Corps Network looks forward to a growing, and increasingly important, relationship with CNCS as we continue to operate the Opportunity Youth Service Initiative, and as the Administration implements the 21CSC.

Mary Ellen Sprenkel is President and CEO of The Corps Network. The Corporation for National and Community Service is celebrating the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps and highlighting the theme of environmental stewardship during the month of April. For more information about the 20th anniversary, please visit the AmeriCorps 20th Anniversary Resource Center.

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