Pennsylvania’s public lands are a state treasure. They’re accessible places to play frisbee with your kids on a weekend afternoon, launch your kayak, hunt and fish, hike the trails, reserve a pavilion, make s’mores, and listen to the rain. If, like me and my friends, you’ve enjoyed the many recreational opportunities that our parks and forests offer, you’ve also likely experienced how they help us reconnect with nature and witnessed some of the work being done to make these facilities visitor-ready. Each of us has a role to play when it comes to helping maintain our parks and forests. From practicing the Leave No Trace Seven Principles on a personal level, to joining a friends group to care for a local asset, there are plenty of ways to get involved. One such program is the PA Outdoor Corps, a program designed to cultivate the next generation of stewards and workforce while also improving our public lands.
The Outdoor Corps is similar in design to the Civilian Conservation Corps established by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, as part of his New Deal, to provide sustainable work for millions of unemployed men and to build parks and improve infrastructure across the country. Here in Pennsylvania, 151 camps were established, several of which became precursors of the state parks we visit today. Close to 200,000 men found work at these camps. One of these camps was built on the banks of Lick Run in Farrandsville, north of Lock Haven. My mother-in-law remembers standing at the side of Farrandsville Road with other eager kids as the CCC boys rode through town early in the morning in their flatbeds, tossing the oranges they had saved from breakfast to the waiting children.
The same spirit of service and camaraderie pervades today’s Outdoor Corps, a workforce development program designed to involve Pennsylvania’s youth in conservation, environmental stewardship, and land management. Matt Eckle, who’ll be starting his third season with the Corps as Project Leader of the St. Marys crew says folks are attracted to the program because they “want to become more involved in their communities and are looking for a chance to give back to the people they care for and to the land they call home.”
The Corps got its start when Tom Wolf, in his first term as governor, reached out to Pennsylvania’s agencies asking them to find ways to engage the state’s youth in the workforce. The program that resulted created a two-part structure, serving youth 15 to 18 years old as well as young adults between 18 and 25. The Youth Crew is a 6-week summer program, while the Young Adult Crew runs 10 months, from March to December. All crews have a 1 to 5 leader-to-member ratio so that the participants can be mentored and trained safely in different skills. All crew members perform paid service work in our parks and forests, earning over $12 an hour, but members of the older group are able to operate machinery, with the proper training, and are taught more sophisticated technical skills that can prepare them for future work in the trades. Since the program started in 2016, 772 people have participated. Of those, 521 have earned professional certification in areas such as Conservation Work Skills, Wilderness First Aid, Carpentry, Wild Land Firefighting, Leave No Trace Awareness, and Chain Saw Safety Training.
The Pennsylvania Wilds region is home to the greatest concentration of public lands in the Commonwealth. Featuring 29 state parks, 8 state forests, 50 state game lands and Pennsylvania’s only National Forest, the Allegheny — all together it is more public land than Yellowstone National Park. Our public lands are our major tourism draw here in the PA Wilds, fueling a $1.8 billion tourism industry annually that supports many local businesses. The PA Outdoor Corps program plays an important role in helping steward these public spaces, while creating meaningful job opportunities for young people in rural communities, just like the CCC did generations ago.
This recently released video, The Wilds Are Working: PA Outdoor Corps, was produced by Sixty Foot Films, a company based out of the Allegheny National Forest + Surrounds landscape of the PA Wilds, for the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, Inc.
When describing the program, Mike Piaskowski, who has managed the Outdoor Corps for DCNR since 2018, can barely contain his enthusiasm. It’s benefits are almost too numerous to count. The work performed by the participants — work that extends far beyond this brief enumeration — includes constructing bridges, removing brush, managing invasive species, creating tent pads, constructing firewood shelters, refurbishing cabin docks, administering herbicide treatments, preserving historic CCC-era structures, rehabilitating hiking and horse trails, and the planting of trees.
Since the start of the program, 659 miles of trails have been improved, 7,824 structure repairs have been completed, and 15,212 native plantings have been established. Without this important work, the wilderness would encroach in ways that would seriously diminish the public’s enjoyment and participation.
These are the most visible benefits of the program. The social benefits, though less visible, shouldn’t be underestimated. From both the leadership and participant points of view, the experience, according to Piaskowski, is “incredible.” DCNR staff and crew leaders are thoroughly invested in the growth of their young workers. In on-site interactions, they focus on teaching practical as well as interpersonal skills. “We talk about careers. We advocate for professional development. And along the way, we give webinars and educational seminars on a number of environmental topics,” says Piaskowski.
Crew leaders like Eckle, and like Jamie Klebanski who began her career by leading the Meadville and Pittsburgh Young Adult Corps, are often attracted to the Corps because they want a meaningful leadership career in the outdoors. They benefit from the environmental trainings offered by the Corps and from the interpersonal skills that come from working closely with others as a team. They also benefit from the selfless mentorship offered by the Corps and DCNR staff. Klebanski, who at the age of 26 is now a supervisor for the Forest Service, has the highest praise for her mentors. Her success, she says, is not so much about her. “It’s about all the people I met along the way and working for an organization that invested in me. The people you meet care about you and want you to succeed.”
Piaskowski is proud of the Corps’s high retention rate and of the fact that many alums from the program go on to take jobs in the field of conservation or even to become members of the program’s staff. One of the goals of the program is to engage underserved citizens by reaching out to urban, suburban and rural communities in order to develop the next generation of conservation leaders in Pennsylvania. “We are predominantly a white, male enclave,” he says. “Representation matters, and we’ll need everyone on board as we go forward to confront the world’s environmental problems.”
The program’s focus on serving others, as well as its efforts at support and advocacy, have paid off. Though parity has not yet been achieved, the program’s success at attracting females and people of color is impressive and is gaining momentum. The ability of the program to take young people from diverse backgrounds and turn them into working teams could serve as a model for social interaction in today’s divided world.
The effects of this focus on interpersonal connection is evident in Eckle’s account of what happens in the formation and development of the crews:
“It is amazing to see what happens when you combine young, energetic and intelligent individuals onto a team with a purpose and a goal. Members will sacrifice their needs for their crew mates’ needs and for the demands of a project after they are given the purpose and the goal. The Corps staff here and the staff of DCNR have always done an excellent job in providing the meaningful ingredients to bring about positive change within a crew and within the parks. It is amazing to see what kind of individual growth happens when the purpose and the goals are provided to members.”
This recently released video, Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps — Ensuring the Future of Conservation, was distributed by the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
This year’s program, though its focus on personal interaction has been restricted by COVID, will begin in March, and the PA Wilds communities of Saint Marys and Williamsport will be involved, with much-needed work being done in the area’s state parks and forests. The Williamsport crew will be busy with trail rehab at R.B. Winter, Lyman Run, Tiadaghton and Tioga State Forests, as well as working at Kettle Creek, Bald Eagle, Leonard Harrison, and Sproul State Forest. Eckle reports that his crew will travel to parks like Parker Dam, Clear Creek, Cook Forest, and the Elk County Visitor’s Center, to landscape native-plant gardens, rehabilitate hiking and horse trails, preserve historic CCC cabins, and manage invasive plant species, continuing the work “that may often go unnoticed by park visitors but is needed to keep the places we love beautiful.”
The PA Outdoor Corps is based in communities across the Commonwealth. They work only on public land, defined as land open to the public in perpetuity. The Corps will work in partnership with a unit of government (township, borough, county, authority, etc.) or a non-profit organization. Organizations interested in hiring an Outdoor Corps team can contact Mike Piaskowski at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen Elias, retired after 40 years of teaching college English, is now working as a freelance writer and environmental advocate in Lock Haven. She recently completed training to become a Climate Reality leader and is using her writing to increase both awareness of our precious natural resources and support for environmental sustainability. As a regular contributor who shares Stories of Personal Experience And Knowledge to the PA Wilds Are Calling blog, Karen is a member of WildSPEAK, the PA Wilds Civilian Storyteller Corps.
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