We Need a Civilian Conservation Corps

Before anyone even imagined a world in lockdown, it was next to impossible to get a job in conservation.

First, the competition is fierce. And even if you get one, it’s usually a short-term, seasonal, or unpaid internship. Six-week programs are great for exciting environmental students, but the mounting climate change crisis requires a much more resilient workforce.

Because whether we are ready to accept this reality or not, the world is changing rapidly. Conservation organizations are being stretched thin to keep up with the influx of traffic into green spaces and the effects of climate change. These organizations have an almost endless backlog of maintenance projects, most of which have been postponed year after year due to budget cuts.

These projects are critical to mitigating climate change. This process is designed to stabilize greenhouse gas levels so that the earth can adapt to the stress we inflict on it. We need healthy forests, prairies and oceans – without them we will never be able to avoid the 1.5 ° C rise in global temperature, which scientists agree would increase our climate impact from devastating to catastrophic.

And to keep the earth healthy, we need knowledgeable, passionate stewards. But if most people cannot afford a career in conservation, we are left with a shortage of scientists, educators, workers, and political advocates focused on protecting biodiversity, conserving habitats, and reducing climate change. Furthermore, those in this small number tend to come from the same wealthy backgrounds.

I’ve seen it myself. That summer, after graduating from college, I worked on two conservation teams – my fifth overall. I made some of my closest friendships and fondest memories of these crews and saw how precarious a career can be. Seasonal crews have a set end date: They start in summer; You will be replaced by a new roster in autumn. Everyone is painfully aware that the invisible timer has expired until your group of coworkers has to split up in a dozen different directions and we are all trying to figure out our next gig.

But there was no point working under this type of scarcity: there were a few days when we couldn’t see the sun in Illinois because of the wildfires 2,000 miles away in California. The earth burned before our eyes and we struggled to scrape together a career in conservation.

The pandemic has made things worse. It has exacerbated the already existing problem of tight budgets, and opportunities to work in conservation have become even scarcer. City park districts, forest sanctuaries, and public land agencies across the country have introduced hiring freezes and budget cuts for the year. Nonprofits have generally suffered from the economic downturn. Funding cuts and travel restrictions prevent researchers from planning for the future. “When mentoring young people who want to work outdoors in this field, I have no real advice on how to make a living,” said Alyssa Rooks, environmental educator and former crew leader.

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