Interior Secretary Wants To Create Jobs For Conservationists

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has a goal of putting 100,000 young people and veterans to work on the federal lands she oversees before the end of the Obama administration. These are basically public service jobs that don't pay a lot. But still, it's not an easy goal to reach during times of tight budgets, so that's why she's gone to corporate America to try to raise money.

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During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work in National Parks and forests in the Civilian Conservation Corps. President Obama's Secretary of the Interior wants to bring back that spirit, to create jobs and a new generation of conservationists.

But as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, it's not the easiest thing to do in tight budget times.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has set an epic goal. She wants to create 100,000 new jobs for young people and veterans on the public lands she oversees and provide more opportunities to plant trees, repair hiking trails and hack away at invasive plants.

SECRETARY SALLY JEWELL: These young people, through their work on public lands, are getting a taste for what we, as human beings yearn for, which is a connection to nature and the outdoors that feeds our soul.

SHOGREN: The Civilian Conservation Corps - which planted millions of trees, fought forest fires and completed the Appalachian Trail - ended in the 1940s. Since then, private groups have created their own conservation corps that do work on federal lands. Jewell wants to invigorate this movement. Given the federal budget woes, she's trying to raise $20 million from private sources.

JEWELL: I didn't really expect to be doing a lot of fundraising in this new job, but I am.

SHOGREN: Jewell says public lands are hurting all over the country, and...

JEWELL: We're not getting support in the traditional way.

SHOGREN: From the federal budget.

Jewell's last job was CEO of REI Outfitters. American Eagle Outfitters is the first to make a pledge. It's putting up a million dollars. Jewell announced the donation at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, near the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

JEWELL: Young people working on public lands enhances those public lands, but it also gives people a sense of opportunity and hope and shows them what they can do, just like the CCC did for so many young men back in the '30s.

SHOGREN: These days, many more people want to participate than get to. The new money would create more opportunities for young people like Keisha Alvarenga. She works with Earth Conservation Corps, cleaning up the nearby Anacostia River and helping bring back wildlife.

KEISHA ALVARENGA: It changed me, because I'm a better person. I don't have a nasty attitude anymore, and I'm starting to believe again in myself, as far as not being in trouble with the law. And when I'm feeling down, I know I can come to work and feel happy.

SHOGREN: Keisha picks up trash from wetlands, plants, trees, and works with endangered birds of prey. She also visits local schools to teach children about nature and to keep the river clean. She says the hardest thing she ever did was get a raptor to sit on her gloved hand and feed it a mouse.

Did you always love animals and...

ALVARENGA: No. The surprising part about it, I was scared of animals. Now, I'm an animal freak.

SHOGREN: About 20,000 young people and veterans participate in conservation corps programs every year. Some get wages. Others get stipends and rewards to use for education. The Obama administration has talked a lot in the past about creating a 21st Century Conservation Corps. But so far, the numbers of participants haven't changed. The details of how Jewell plans to make good on her goals are still sketchy. But conservation corps leaders say she's already put more energy into this than other secretaries.

Before she became interior secretary, Jewell was on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association. Theresa Pierno, that group's vice president, says Jewell is the kind of person who gets things done.

THERESA PIERNO: And so I think she's going to look for ways to be able to make these things that we've been trying to do for so long, actually a reality.

SHOGREN: She says if anyone can create a 21st Century Conservation Corps in tough budget times, Jewell can.

Elizabeth Shogren. NPR News, Washington.

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