Mary Ellen's Blog: Outdoors for All


Originally published on the Huffington Post 

On September 30th, just 61 days from now, one of the most important funding streams supporting the conservation of our public lands and waters is set to expire.

Created by an Act of Congress in 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is critical to the maintenance of our parks and the protection of outdoor recreation access. LWCF has provided funds to nearly every state and every county in the country for the creation of parks, the protection of natural treasures and the expansion of outdoor recreational opportunities. There's a good chance that your local playground, public park, or community ice rink benefited from LWCF.

Congress established the LWCF as a way to do something positive for the environment with revenue from oil and gas drilling. The idea was to protect natural places for all Americans as a counterbalance to the depletion of natural resources. Now, unless Congress reauthorizes the fund, our public lands and waters are at risk of falling even further into disrepair. Every year, oil and gas companies pay $900 million dollars to the federal government, but most of this money does not go towards conservation. Since 1987, the average annual appropriation for the LWCF has been only $40 million.

Protecting public lands is at the heart of the Corps movement. The Civilian Conservation Corps, the predecessor to today's Corps, was created during the Great Depression as a way to put millions of young men to work constructing new parks, planting billions of trees, and restoring our existing public lands infrastructure. Modern Corps continue this legacy; on any given day, you can see Corps hard at work building trails and restoring habitats in our national, state and local parks. The work for many LWCF-supported public lands maintenance and improvement projects has been carried out by Corpsmembers. If LWCF is allowed to expire, Corps could suffer from decreased project funding, but, more importantly, we all could suffer from reduced outdoor recreation access.

The great outdoors should be available to all, but many Americans, especially those living in urban areas, need parks and recreational facilities in order to get outside. Even people who are surrounded by nature in more rural communities benefit from well-maintained trails and waterways free of pollutants and invasive species. Access to the outdoors should be a right, not a privilege. But we need funding - like the LWCF - and dedicated individuals - like those involved in the Corps movement - to protect this right by maintaining our public lands and waters.

This summer, The Corps Network introduced Eli the Elk. Similar to how Smokey Bear speaks about the dangers of forest fires, and Woodsy Owl reminds people to "Lend a hand - care for the land," Eli is traveling around the country as a paper cutout to highlight the importance of America's treasured public lands, and the federal funding that supports conservation, through his slogan "Conserve today for access tomorrow!" If you agree with Eli's message, follow him on Twitter to show your support. The week of July 27th - 31st is Eli's first social media campaign; be sure to get online and use the hashtags #EliElk and #outdoors4all to help him spread his important message to as many people as possible. If you plan to be outside soon, print out a copy of Eli and take him with you. Snap a picture with him and share it on Twitter @ElitheElk. Every new person engaged in the campaign helps. You can also help protect the outdoors by signing the Land and Water Conservation Fund's petition to Congress to reauthorize the LWCF.

This is a very important time for public lands conservation. We need to take action now.

Mary Ellen's Blog: Find Your Park and Protect it

A Corpsmember with the Gulf Coast Restoration Initiative on the 5th anniversary of the
Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

This blog also appeared on HuffPost Green

April is a big month for Corps and The Corps Network! For starters, April is when we celebrate both Earth Day and Arbor Day. As organizations that empower individuals to actively participate in improving the environment and their communities, Corps appreciate the attention these holidays bring to the ways we can each play a role in protecting our planet.  Many Corps use Earth Day as an opportunity to engage their communities in conservation-focused volunteer projects. This year is no exception; we look forward to seeing all the great photos of Corps leading their friends, neighbors and local schools in planting trees, cleaning up parks and beaches, and pulling invasive plants. You can follow Earth Day-related Corps activities too by following the hashtags #corpsearthday and #servetheearth on social media. 

Though “every day is Earth Day” for Conservation Corps, we understand all too well how difficult it can be for many people to find time to enjoy the outdoors, let alone feel like they can contribute to protecting our environment in a meaningful way. However, the message of Earth Day is that we can (and should) all be environmentally conscious, even if it’s just by recycling, being mindful of our water use, and turning off the lights when we leave a room. We applaud Corps for spreading this important environmental education on Earth Day and throughout the year, and for engaging people who might not traditionally be involved in the environmental conservation movement. As anyone who has participated in a Corps can tell you, service to one’s community and the environment can be a profoundly empowering experience. Corps teach us that everyone – young people and the traditionally disenfranchised in particular – have the power and the right to make a positive impact on their environment.

In addition to annual holidays, this April is important because it marks the official launch of Find Your Park; an initiative of the National Park Service and National Park Foundation to connect the next generation to America’s parks. As studies show, today’s children spend significantly less time outdoors than their parents or grandparents. They are more connected to screens than they are to nature. With its centennial coming up in 2016, the National Park Service is focused on making sure its next 100 years are even stronger than the first 100. To do this, they need to ensure that generations to come have an interest in not only visiting parks, but becoming public land and water managers. Corps are united with the Park Service in the goal to get more young people outdoors and interested in conservation. For years, Corps have completed vitally important maintenance and improvement projects in National Parks across the country, ranging from Shenandoah in Virginia, to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, to Olympic National Park in Washington. The Corps Network was proud to participate in a Find Your Park launch event last week at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC.

Another reason why this April in particular is important is that it marks the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; the largest spill in America’s history. You may have seen news stories in the past few days about how the recovery process in the Gulf has been slow and there is still a great deal of restoration work to be done. Fortunately, not all of the news out of the Gulf this month is bad news; the second phase of The Corps Network’s Gulf Coast Restoration Initiative (GCRI) pilot project got underway last week in Mississippi. Corpsmembers will spend the next seven weeks restoring coastal habitats in Mississippi’s Hancock, Harrison and Jackson Counties. The goal of the GCRI is build the capacity of Corps throughout the Gulf, giving young people in coastal communities the opportunity to be trained for careers in the increasingly important fields of wetland and riparian habitat restoration. The Corpsmembers who participate in the current GCRI pilot project could one day be the conservation experts who help prevent future manmade disasters in the Gulf and make sure all natural disasters are responded to in a timely fashion. 

One last reason why April is an important month for the Corps world is that spring means the start of the field season. With warmer weather and the end of the school year in sight, Corps are busy starting projects or finishing their final preparations to welcome Corpsmembers for spring and summer crews. This is a time when some Corps host orientations for recently recruited Corpsmembers, exposing them to environmental stewardship and the growing diversity of “green careers” available.

April makes us think of things turning green, of new life and growth. It’s a time when we think about our impact on the environment and what we can do to ensure we make a positive impact. This April, I hope you consider getting outdoors to Find Your Park, join a volunteer project, or enjoy the beauty of the natural world just outside your front door. As the great conservationist John Muir once said, "I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in."

Mary Ellen's Blog: Graduation Rate, Not the Dropout Rate

June 5, 2014

It’s graduation season! High school seniors across the country can celebrate the completion of 12 years of essays, tests and projects. They can rejoice in knowing that, with a diploma in hand, their futures are bright. After all, every graduate is one step closer to a college education, a good job and independence.

Unfortunately, not every student makes it to graduation. Though the dropout rate has declined over the past decade, it still hovers around seven percent. For minority populations, the situation is even bleaker; nearly one in two minority students does not graduate with his or her classmates. Lacking a high school diploma or GED means fewer options in the workforce and limited opportunities to earn degrees or credentials that could lead to higher-paying jobs. The sad truth is that dropping out of high school can mean a lifetime of struggling to make ends meet. Even sadder is the fact that many students who leave school don’t leave because they’re “lazy” or caught up in the wrong crowd; it’s because they feel like they don’t have any options.

Civicorps - Oakland, CA


Out of the approximately 7,000 students who dropout every school day, there are many young parents who need to work to support their families. There are teenagers who have no homes and no support network. There are many students who are new to this country and don’t receive the ESL services they need, as well as students who could benefit from one-on-one attention, but get lost in the shuffle. In other words, there are hundreds of thousands of very smart, capable young adults who choose or need to leave high school. These individuals are full of potential – they just need to have access to the right opportunities.  

Corps offer an alternative. Young people who enter a Corps without a high school diploma or GED have the chance to go to school while also developing tangible job skills. Corpsmembers attend class for part of the day, or part of the week, and then go out into the community to gain hands-on work experience by participating in service projects. For their service, Corpsmembers receive a stipend and often earn scholarship money. Essentially, the Corps model allows young people to make money while furthering their education.

Conservation Corps North Bay - Marin County, CA

Corps generally offer smaller class sizes and more personal attention. Most programs also have onsite counseling staff or relationships with local organizations that can help students with everything from transportation costs to mental health services and childcare. Not to mention, there are dedicated staff members at many Corps programs who were once Corpsmembers themselves; they understand and can accommodate the kinds of issues their students deal with outside the classroom.  

Last year, out of nearly 26,000 young people enrolled in programs of The Corps Network, nearly 60 percent came from families below the poverty line and some 30 percent were not in school and lacked a high school diploma or GED upon enrollment. These young people bring different, often additional, challenges than your average high school student, but Corps offer ways to ways to work with these challenges. The facts speak for themselves: in 2013, of the 10,500 young people who entered Corps without a high school credential, nearly 60 percent received a high school credential during their Corps enrollment, or enrolled in another diploma or GED program. Additionally, Corpsmembers earned nearly 12,600 professional certifications or credentials.

Education doesn’t end after a Corpsmember receives his or her diploma. Many Corps provide comprehensive college preparation and support students throughout their transition to postsecondary programs. Some programs have relationships with local community colleges, allowing students to pursue a postsecondary degree while continuing to serve at the Corps. As said by Candace Washington, a graduate of Civicorps in Oakland, CA who is currently enrolled in college, “I started the Corps without a diploma. I believe that just being able to be a part of Civicorps has made me stronger, helped me better serve my community, and has opened my eyes to all possibilities. My journey does not end here; this is just my stepping stone…I plan on graduating five years from now with my Masters in Psychology and starting my career. I am going to jump over any obstacles that may come my way.” 

So during this graduation season, let’s not think about the dropout rate; let’s think about the graduation rate. Let’s focus on the positive and think about ways we can get more young people in cap and gown. Corps are one way to do that. 

Mary Ellen's Blog: The Next Generation of Historic Preservationists

April 7, 2014

By now, many of us who are familiar with the conservation world have heard the numbers:  as of 2012, a full 38% of the Department of the Interior’s workforce, 35% of the Department of Agriculture’s workforce and 25% of the Bureau of Land Management’s workforce became eligible for retirement, and these numbers only continue to grow. Fortunately, every day thousands of young people across the country learn about conservation and develop green skills through Service and Conservation Corps programs. By providing teens and young adults the opportunity to serve outdoors, Corps foster the growth of America’s next – and more diverse – generation of environmental stewards.  

 By training the future protectors of our natural spaces, Corps help ensure that our parks and waterways are preserved for generations of American’s to enjoy. Now, through The Corps Network’s partnership with The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Corps will also help ensure that America’s historic buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes will also be preserved for future generations. 

Right now, Corpsmembers with the first Hands On Preservation Experience (HOPE) Crew are working alongside preservation experts of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service to restore the Skyland Stable at Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. At the completion of this project, the newly-repaired 1930’s stable will connect the public to over 200 miles of equestrian trails, and the first HOPE Crew cohort will be trained in craft skills and important preservation techniques.   

The Skyland Stable restoration project is just the beginning: the goal is to complete 100 HOPE Crew projects throughout the country by 2016. Working with the Trust, the Park Service and private funders, members of The Corps Network will have the opportunity to engage their Corpsmembers in the preservation of structures and places that are important to the history of our country.

Corps already provide much needed help in addressing the billions of dollars of backlogged maintenance work in our national, state and local parks. HOPE Crews represent another way that Corps will make a real and lasting impact on the places that define our communities. For decades, Corps have helped young people gain skills in land and water management. They have helped Corpsmembers understand and appreciate our connection with the natural world. It’s exciting to know that now, by serving in HOPE Crews alongside craft professionals, Corpsmembers will also gain skills in historic preservation and learn the importance of our connection with the past. I’m excited to be a part of the Corps movement as Corps play a larger role in developing not only the next generation of conservationists, but also the generation of preservationists.