California Conservation Corps: The stuff that dreams are made of

Has the bell tolled for the iconic California Conservation Corps? Is the agency that provides training opportunities to some 1300 young men and women to become history, ground up like so much granite dust in the 2009-10 budget proposal released by governor Schwarzenegger the first week of January?

Modeled after the original federal Civilian Conservation Corps created in 1933 by President Franklin Roosevelt, today’s California program was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on July 7, 1976.

Since its inception, the CCC or “The C’s” as it is commonly known has racked up some impressive statistics over the years; More than 100,000 corps members since 1976, now with some “second-generation” corps members whose parents were in the CCC.  More than 3,000 young men and women hired annually. 9 million hours of emergency response. More than 11 million hours of work improving rural and urban parks and recreation areas. Three decades of energy conservation work. These are just a fraction of the C’s accomplishments over the years

The California Conservation Corps currently has 15 non-residential centers, from Escondido to Yreka; there are seven residential centers from Camarillo north to South Lake Tahoe where corps members live on site.  The cost for retaining the 1300 corps members currently enrolled in the program is negligible compared to the cost of retaining a young person in a Division of Juvenile Justice facility at around $225,000 per year.

There is also a cost-saving compared to housing a similarly aged person in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation at approximately $75,000 per year.

What do Californians get for their investment in these young people? We get young people who learn the discipline of hard work, along with the sense that they are contributing to the quality of life in the communities that they serve. We get young people who may have failed in school but are now given a chance to earn a high school diploma through partnerships with contract education entities. We get young people who learn transferable work skills, prepared to enter the job market with a willingness to work hard toward shared goals.

There are twelve so-called Local Conservation Corps in California. These range from the San Diego County Urban Corps to the San Francisco Conservation Corps. These corps have programs of education and training similar to the California Conservation Corps, however, to expect that these twelve Public/Private entities can respond during state emergencies is a stretch. Although most of the Local Corps programs occasionally work together with CCC sites on urban projects, the focus of the two groups are different by virtue of their individual legislative mandates.  Since 1976, the CCC has assembled and sent out armies of young men and women to assist in everything from Wildfire support to Fruit Fly eradication, and Newcastle Disease mitigation. The local corps, funded mostly from the old Prop 84 Bottle Bill funding out of the Department of Conservation through the Recycling Division has specific restrictions on its areas of operation and would take a sea change of legislation to accomplish what is already being done by the California Conservation Corps.

The governor’s plan to eliminate the CCC through budget cuts carries implications beyond just the abolishment of an agency. The cost is greater in terms of the dashed hopes and dreams of the thousands of young men and women who are a part of this iconic agency as well as the communities that they serve.

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