January 24, 2013

21CSC Can Provide Jobs for Youth, Cultivate a Park-Minded Generation, and do Critical Maintenance at Low Cost

by Scott Breen from Indiana University, Student of Public & Environmental Affairs and Maurer School of Law

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) maintained or constructed more than 100,000 miles of trails, planted more than 3 billion trees, and provided jobs to more than 2.5 million young men during the decade it operated after the Great Depression. The 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC) intends to replicate the CCC’s incredible impact on our protected lands, especially our National Parks. The 21CSC is meant to provide a solution to two critical issues: 1) unemployment rates among America’s youth and returning veterans and 2) the NPS maintenance backlog of more than $11 billion that includes critical work necessary to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife” in our parks. In short, the 21CSC can be the win-win that is so often sought in public policy programs and is why it greatly excites me.

The 21CSC was the first recommendation made in the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative Report to the President on February 7, 2011. Secretary Salazar then established a federal committee to make recommendations on how to create a 21CSC; this committee released its final report on September 5, 2012. It can be read here. The report does a nice job making specific recommendations and clearly laying out how this program will be different from the CCC. For instance, the 21CSC won’t have as many members (100,000 vs. 300,000 annually) and will be primarily funded by private sources rather than by the taxpayer. Also importantly, it is recommended that the 21CSC primarily use an innovative projects-based approach where funding goes to natural resource managers to complete specific projects rather than just giving general funds to program operators.

The evidence shows that this model of having youth do maintenance work in our public lands can work. For one, the 21CSC can build off the success of the more than 150 service and conservation corps currently operating in all 50 states. Second, utilizing a corps program can actually save the government money. A recent NPS study found a potential 56% cost savings for utilizing corps to complete cyclic maintenance projects. Aside from the cost savings, there is also a significant positive impact on participants. Abt Associates performed a six-year study on 21 youth corps for the Corporation for National and Community Service. The report from the study, released in June 2011, showed an increase from 50% to 67% in educational enrollment and employment by corps members over the course of the study. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of program participants said that their participation helped them secure a job, and three out of four said that the experience gave them a job-hunting advantage.

On January 10, 2013, leaders of eight federal departments and agencies announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding to establish the National Council for the 21CSC. According to the Department of Interior’s press release, this National Council will spearhead the 21CSC’s next steps: “enhancing partnerships with the existing youth corps programs, stimulating existing and new public-private partnerships, and aligning the investment of current federal government resources.” I think it’s also critical that a database of metrics to keep track of the 21CSC’s impact is instituted. This database is important because private funders will demand evidence of the social return on their investment. Additionally, having this data will allow the National Council to make data-driven decisions on how to make the 21CSC more effective. There seems to be an understanding of the importance of metrics as supporting recommendation 3.3.1 in the federal committee’s report calls for a national database, and appendix c of the report gives a comprehensive list of data that could be collected.

Ultimately, the 21CSC is a no-brainer. It’s actually a win-win-win: youth and veterans will get jobs, public lands will get maintained, and a new generation of environmental stewards will be created. With all these benefits, it advances several of the actions in the NPS A Call to Action including action #2, creating deep connections between a younger generation and parks.

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