USFS Prescribed Fire Gets Assistance from Oconaluftee Job Corps CCC

From Holly Krake, MSEd, Oconaluftee Job Corps CCC Liaison Specialist

Bryson City, NC – Deep in the Nantahala Gorge, Forestry Conservation students from the Oconaluftee Job Corps CCC partnered with local Forest Service fire staff to put in miles of hand dug fire line through the forest. Tackling steep slopes of over 60 percent, students used specialized wildland fire hand tools such as the Pulaski and McCloud to construct the line down to bare mineral soil in eight inch deep trenches. With many years of wildland fire experience, Cheoah Ranger District Assistant Fire Management Officer, Randall Sellers, knows how important this task is. “Establishing a good fire line is essential to having a burn go as we want. Difficult terrain and fuel types force a wildland fire fighter to adapt his or her approach as they go” said Sellers.

For students, the experience provides an excellent hands-on training in some of the day to day field work done in the Forest Service. As part of Oconaluftee’s Forestry program, all students have a goal to complete 360 work-based learning hours using the skills and certifications they have earned. Many are also put in challenging leadership positions that mirror real world situations. “In this project I’m a squad boss over three other students so I have to work the line, motivate others, and watch out for safety hazards all at the same time. I’ve never had this kind of responsibility before and I’m learning it can be tough but great- this stuff is important” said Forestry student Jake Brock.

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2008 Project of the Year: Redondo Bluffs Restoration Project


Winner: Los Angeles Conservation Corps 

In a collaborative effort between the LA Conservation Corps, local residents, the Urban Wildlands Group (local nonprofit), and state and local governments, the Beach Bluffs Restoration Project Team was formed to identify and restore locations within the South Bay that historically supported populations of the El Segundo Blue Butterfly, an endangered species known only to exist in 3 isolated reserves.

LACC’s SEA Lab is located in Redondo Beach on the Santa Monica Bay.  The adjacent coastal bluffs are the historic home of the El Segundo Blue Butterfly.  However, due to habitat loss, the butterfly population rapidly declined and the insect was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1976. In 2005, the Corps received funding from the California Coastal Conservancy to restore a small 3 acre site. For 2 years, more than 100 Corpsmembers removed invasive ice plant, constructed a native plant nursery, planted native vegetation, installed irrigation, fencing, and interpretive signage, conducted stakeholder surveys, and maintained the newly planted native landscape.

Although the Bluffs Restoration Project team hoped that one day the El Segundo Blues would return to the Redondo Bluffs, the scientific community believed due to habitat fragmentation and population isolation re-colonization of the butterflies could occur only via human assistance.  In May 2007, as crews were wrapping up the project by adding vegetation and removing weeds, staff member Monica Acosta noticed a butterfly that looked suspiciously like the El Segundo Blue.  She sent a few photos to USC experts for identification.  A team of scientists surveyed the site and confirmed the presence of over 200 butterflies. 

Sure enough, via the hard work of LACC Corpsmembers, the El Segundo Blue returned, on their own, to the Redondo Bluffs.  The rapid return to the site so surprised the experts that it is now leading them to a new understanding of the species.  Young folks from some of the neediest neighborhoods in LA made a difference, a huge difference, and proved that sometimes the impossible is just improbable.

2009 Project of the Year: Reducing Wildfire Threat in New Mexico

Winner: Rocky Mountain Youth Corps

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, in partnership with the Southwest Region of the National Forest Service, works diligently to reduce the threat of large, high intensity wildfires by reestablishing pre-existing fire regimes, and improving the use of small diamter trees. RMYC has been involved in the Collaborative Forest Restoratoin Program (CFRP) in Largo Canyon just outside of Questa, NM, a community at high risk of a wildfire threat.

The efforts of RMYC Crews have reduced the threat of wildfires by carrying out a thinning treatment in a Wild Land-Urban-Interface (WUI) area on the threshold between the town, private, and Forest Service land. Through community planning meetings, RMYC has identified a diverse and balanced group to help design, implement, and monitor the Largo Canyon CFRP.

Corpsmembers are trained and complete ecological monitoring activities within the project area. Additionally, RMYC has created local employment opportunities for youth and provided training opportunities relevant to project accomplishments. Improvement to the watershed by returning ecosystems to healthier conditions, opportunity for local youth to gain valuable job training and experience, as well as the distribution of firewood, meeting local community needs are just a few of the positive outcomes of this project. 

2010 Project of the Year: The Dolores River Restoration Program

Winner: Canyon Country Youth Corps

Region-wide conservation removing invasive species and restoring native vegetation has been planned and will be carried out in a five-year action plan thanks to a unique partnership between Canyon Country Youth Corps (CCYC) and Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC): The Dolores River Restoration Program. The catalyst for the project was The Walton Family Foundation's Freshwater Initiative - and through technical guidance and funding, the Foundation expects to expand its efforts to four other tributaries of the Colorado River.

SCC and CCYC provided each Corpsmember with over 120 hours of training in chainsaw operations, basic GPC monitoring and data collection, river ecology, noxious weed identification, and introductory herbicide application training. Crews have contributed 4,500 hours monitoring and treating over 34 river miles. At the end of the program, SCC and CCYC assisted Corpsmembers in connecting with federal jobs.

These two initial Corps - SCC and CCYC - expect to codify the program model for replication by other Corps across the Colorado River Basin and other similar areas.

2010 Project of the Year: Green Jobs for Veterans

Winner: Southwest Conservation Corps

The prolonged military deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq are resulting in hundreds of thousands of returning veterans in search of work. This highly trained and disciplined workforce needs meaningful work emobodying the ethic of service that brought them into the military. Their significant assets combine with significant challenges: combat trauma and the stress of deployment too often result in tragedy, including suicide rates as high as 120 per week.

Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC) has partnered with Veteran Green Jobs (VGJ) to create the Veterans Green Corps (VGC), an all-Vertan Conservation Corps. SCC employes Veteran Corpsmembers and crew leaders to mobilize crews in conservation projects on public lands. VGJ provides wrap-around supportive services including recruitment and screening, benefits coordination, post-program placement and follow-up, and professional develepment.

Most important are the impacts on the participants - some say that working and living among trees and streams helps alleviate their post-traumatic stress. Others find new careers in forestry and mental health professions. The US Forest Servce Region II awarded SCC, in partnership with VGJ, $868,000 of ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvesment Act) funds to operate 12 VGC crews; SCC operated three of those crews in 2009, employing 25 military veterans, and will operate the remainder in 2010 and 2012. 

2012 Project of the Year: Recycling Black Locusts for a Win-Win


Winner: SEEDS Youth Conservation Corps

SEEDS staffers hold a harder line than most when it comes to purchasing policies because of their organization’s mission to bring a holistic perspective to design challenges and help communities make durable decisions about their own future. For the boardwalks, platforms, and other construction projects the Corps was getting, no one wanted to use toxic, chemically treated lumber.

In Michigan lumber for projects often comes from the West Coast, draining valuable financial resources from the state economy and requiring heavy product to be shipped across vast distances, which is a complete loser in terms of emissions and embodied energy. SEEDS generally desires to build things out of resources that are readily available.

A perfect storm of opportunity was created when SEEDS learned of the possibility of using black locust lumber. Simultaneously they learned that the National Park Service was girdling large stands of it, as it is considered by them an invasive species in Michigan. Black Locust posts have been known to last as long as 100 years in the ground. This wood is very heavy, providing strength and durability. This combined with its rot resistance makes it the ideal choice for fencing, boardwalks, hops yards, and landscaping.

SEEDS Youth Corps creates custom lengths, milled posts, fencing, and decking materials as well as fire wood all for its own use and for sale. The use of black locust has improved the Corps in a number of ways including 1) benefits associated with using higher quality lumber, 2) benefits with sourcing materials locally and using nontoxic material, 3) having direct control over the materials they use, 4) students learning how to both create and fill an order for lumber and learning about the full life cycle of these materials from tree to boardwalk and back into tree, and 5) significantly increasing the number of hours SEEDS can afford to hire its Corpsmembers.

With its new programmatic investment in black locust products, the Corps has already added the equivalent of 2.5 full time green collar jobs for youth in a community that faces far higher rates of unemployment than even their parents do in these economically depressed times and regions of long standing rural poverty. These hours are split among many employees and this work, in and of itself, helps these students stay on track at school, improve self esteem, and generate income for their families. SEEDS expects this number to only grow for the foreseeable future.

By using black locust rough cut lumber in place of treated decking, SEEDS reduced the greenhouse gas impacts of traditional decking lumber production by between 93% and 97%. During the first three quarters of 2011, by displacing traditional treated lumber with locust we reduced 18 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e). This is equivalent to the annual emissions of 3.5 cars or 1.6 homes. Quantifying the impact that the toxic chemicals in treated lumber have on ecosystems – especially wetlands where it is most often used – is not currently accessible to SEEDS, but they are seeking scientists who can effectively illustrate this impact.

Another positive aspect to the program was that Youth Corps staff were trained to take trees down in the park, mill them on-site, organize and transport the lumber, and create beautiful, long lasting, locally sourced, nontoxic carpentry projects for the entire community to use. Corpsmembers have learned to recognize black locust not only as an invasive species but also as resource. They have procured products with their own hands rather than through purchasing and have learned that these projects will last a lifetime. As a result of this project they have also received the following trainings: invasive species identification, herbicide application certification, botanical Illustration and identification, plant identification in the Anishinaabemowin language, first aid and CPR certification, and basic construction. Older Corpsmembers have also received MIOSHA chainsaw certification, wildfire chainsaw certification, and four-season proper tree harvesting techniques.

Creating jobs to create the raw materials needed for other jobs added over $50,000 of community support in the first three quarters of 2011. Additionally, SEEDS has generated another $35,000 by selling locust products to organic farmers – a significant market that they had not previously been involved in. In total the project has provided an additional 5200 hours of paid employment to Corpsmembers.

This is a classic example of looking with an innovative eye toward someone else’s waste product as a resource for someone else. The National Park saw these trees as invasive and a waste – at best firewood. SEEDs saw these trees as economic generators for their community.

2005 Corpsmember of the Year: Patricia Bohnwagner

***Update! Click here to find out what Patricia has been up to since winning her award.***

After graduating from high school, Patricia Bohnwagner was working in a fast food restaurant in Massachusetts when she decided to move to San Diego and live with her sister.  She joined Urban Corps of San Diego when the worry of becoming homeless was all too near.  After being accepted and working her way through the Corps Environmental Projects Department and Urban Forestry Department, Patricia was moved to the Graffiti Department and was quickly promoted to crew leader where she increased production by 20 percent.  She asked for, and was granted, an extension to her one year term and was transferred to the Recycling Department where she led the Corpsmember Marketing Crew.  In January she was promoted to a staff position where she continues to lead the Marketing Crew in her role as supervisor.  Patricia also continues taking classes to become certified as an EMT. 

-- “If it wasn’t for the Urban Corps I would NEVER have gone back to school.  They helped me understand the importance of education, they gave me job training and they gave me the chance to become a leader.  I don’t like to think where my life would be if I hadn’t joined the Corps.”

(written in 2005)

2006 Corpsmember of the Year: Afton McKusick

***Update! Click here to read about what Afton has been up to since she won her award.***

(Written in 2006)

A remarkable and resilient Corpsmember, Afton McKusick has been a fixture of enthusiasm and dedication in the Coconino Rural Environment Corps (CREC). Encouraging several of her friends to join the corps with her, Afton began her successful role as corps recruiter during her junior year of high school. Her love for preserving the northern Arizona landscape continues to bring new members to CREC every season.

Afton's first summer project with CREC consisted of removing the invasive species, cliff rose, off the sides of Walnut Creek. She loved the hard work and since then has worked on trail maintenance and chainsaw crews. Despite already receiving her allotted two AmeriCorps Education Awards she has insisted on spending her summers protecting the natrual environment of northern Arizona.

Afton says the program has helped her realize many life lessons. "Every person we come into contact with will in some way or another have an impact on us," says McKusick, "but we also have an impact on them."

As much as the program has benefited from Afton, she stated that CREC has been equally helpful in her character development. "Without this program, I would not be the person I am today, " Afton said. Explaining her reasons for returning to the prorgram, Afton said, "I came back because...this is a place where I can make a difference." 

2008 Corpsmember of the Year: Matthew Rainey

In his role as Field Education Facilitator for his Marin Conservation Corps (now Conservation Corps North Bay) crew, Matthew teaches a weekly lesson, assists teachers with classes at project sites, and helps orient new Crewmembers. Matthew also has a life lesson to share:

“I feel like I am an excellent example for people, showing what they can overcome if given a chance.  Hard work and determination can take anyone to great places. As long as they make the choice to change and work towards that change, anything is possible.”   

When he came to MCC’s Natural Resource Crew in May 2007, Matthew was unemployed, homeless, with a criminal record and no high school diploma. He had just had a baby and knew it was time to make some changes in his life. 

“I felt that becoming a father was the start of responsibility for me," said Matthew. "I was looking for an opportunity to show my family, as well as myself, that I was ready.” 

Matthew had taken four of the five GED tests while in prison but had such low confidence that he never even checked the results.  When the Corps checked his scores, they discovered he had passed all four.  This gave Matthew the confidence to take and pass the last section, earning his GED.  Matthew saved enough to buy a car within a few months of joining the Corps. He slept in the car for an additional three months while saving enough to finally get his own apartment in September. Even while living in his car, Matthew maintained an exceptional attendance record - gaining work skills, leadership experience, and the respect of his crew, supervisor, teachers, parole officer and family.  

2008 Corpsmember of the Year: Linnea Heu

***Update! Click here to find out what Linnea has been up to since winning her award.***

(Written in 2008)

When Linnea joined the Hawai’i Youth Conservation Corps (KUPU), she had very little knowledge of or concern for Hawai’i’s environmental preservation. 

“I had always loved the outdoors and nature, but I’d never seen the environment as a responsibility, which I now realize it is," she said.

Linnea joined the Corps out of cultural consciousness and pride when she heard the Corps was going to spend a week on Kaho’olawe Island.  This island, a place of great cultural significance for many native Hawaiians, was used for military live-fire training and was in the process of being “regreened”. 

During her term on her home island and her second term at the National Tropical Botanical Gardens, Linnea was involved in dry forest, stream, and beach restoration projects, including removing invasive species, propagating seeds, and installing irrigation.  During both terms, supervisors and peers were impressed by her drive, eagerness to learn, and enthusiasm for service. 

Linnea is currently pursuing a degree in Environmental Science and plans to be an active participant in environmental restoration in the future. As Linnea said:

“Luckily for me, a passion for the Hawaiian culture led me to an equally engrossing care for the environment and the islands I call home.”