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.
According to Teri Valenzuela, a former stewardship program employee at the Audubon Great Lakes, this is a pretty agreed condition for working in conservation. “If you’re going to do it on conservation, it feels like you’re going to have to kill yourself trying,” she said.
Valenzuela, who until recently had been hired to intern with the restoration team, said the economic downturn had created a flood of new applicants looking for work. “People don’t know how many applicants there are for these roles,” she said. It typically receives around 95 applicants for a seat on the crew; This year she received around 500. “The competition for conservation jobs has only been multiplied by the effects of the pandemic.”
Ten people were hired for this crew, but the other 490 had to search the conservation job boards for the next position. “There are no posts that are readily available,” said Valenzuela. “Driving for Amazon is a position that is readily available. I have so many friends who deliver packages. ”
In the meantime, the pandemic has left many longings for green spaces. “This year there has been unprecedented use of forest reserves across the country,” said Alex Horvath, conservation corps program assistant at Friends of the Forest Preserves. Parks and forests have created an area where social distance and exercise are safe, but they need caretakers to stay healthy.
In the meantime, nature conservation organizations are dependent on money. According to Alice Brandon, manager of resource programs at Forest Preserves in Cook County, Illinois, each year her organization goes through the complicated gymnastics of the budget fight – moving money from one pot to another just to get things going. And many nature conservation organizations are dependent on donations that keep them constantly in financial limbo and on the continued generosity of their donors. This often results in a noticeable number of short-term jobs being created at the expense of less stable jobs that people can live on. Brandon said she could hire 150 high school kids for five weeks. For the same amount of money she was able to pay six crew members of the nature protection corps for a year with social benefits, a living wage, sick days and a power take-off. “What sounds more impressive to a financier?” Said Brandon.
Fortunately, we see politicians taking this dilemma seriously. In September Senators Dick Durbin and Bobby Bush sponsored the RENEW Act. Inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal and borrowed from the Green New Deal, it would get 1 million unemployed Americans over the age of 16 to work in conservation in rural, suburban, and urban communities for over five years. The law is on committee now and will need support when it reaches the Senate and House.
At the end of January, President Biden signed an executive order that provided for the creation of a “Civilian Climate Corps”, which was also modeled on the FDR’s CCC. She called on home and agriculture secretaries and heads of other relevant agencies to come up with a plan within the next 90 days to “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs.”
The pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to change our relationship with conservation in the United States and make administration an accessible and reliable career path. Taking care of our land shouldn’t be a luxury. We need to get long-term, professional environmental opportunities out of the pockets of the rich. The Civilian Climate Corps would create millions of good, reliable jobs that restore and protect our threatened and fragile ecosystems, strengthen resilience to disasters related to climate change, and prepare the United States for green infrastructure.
However, it is not enough to just mobilize a task force. The goals of the Green New Deal should be implemented over a period of 10 years. We have workers who need jobs and conservation projects who need workers right now – and yet we have an impossible job market. Something is broken. And if we hesitate further, there is a serious risk that a generation of conservation workers will be lost to Amazon delivery jobs – after all, people have to support their families.
The original CCC provided stable jobs for 3 million workers. A conservation corps of the 21st century could be a lifeline for millions of workers too. It’s time to make conservation a funding priority. The Trump administration has cut funding for climate change initiatives and disrupted long-term climate goals. Efforts to protect natural resources have been ridiculed. The Ministry of the Interior’s budget for 2021 has been cut by 16 percent compared to 2020, which corresponds to a reduction of 14 percent compared to the previous year. Conservation has been treated as an incidental expense, and if we can’t see it in our overhauled conservation organizations, we should see it in the frustrations of potential conservation workers unable to build stable careers.
What the future holds for nature conservation depends on structural changes and changes in environmental awareness. The Biden government faces a major challenge and offers a number of opportunities to breathe life into a sector that is vital to the earth and the people who live on it.