SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Department of Interior is providing $4.2 million in grants to put young people to work on conservation projects in several Western states.
In Utah, the Bureau of Land Management will award $95,000, and another $175,000 in non-federal funds will go toward an effort for 64 people ages 18-26 to work as youth conservation corps members.
The Utah project, one of 22 selected in the country, is for Escalante River watershed restoration and control of invasive species. The conservation corps will be hired by the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners to assist in removing Russian olive trees.
Workers will concentrate on 20 acres in the Grand Staircas-Escalante National Monument and 25 acres on private lands directly upstream from the monument.
The Grand Staircase Escalante Partners has been working to restore the watershed along the Escalante River for three years. Noel Poe, its president, said Russian olive trees were planted 30 years ago in a federal program to control erosion along the streams and the river.
"The problem is that it is an invasive tree that has completely dominated the stream banks of the Escalante River and its tributaries," he said. "It grows really thick, and the native plants like your cottonwoods, willows and shrubs cannot grow."
The olive trees have not only created poor habitat for wildlife, they are a painful, damaging nuisance to river enthusiasts.
"If you seen these trees, they have long thorns that puncture rafts and inner-tubes and cut people as they are floating by," he said. "It is a terrible tree to have along the river."
Efforts to remove the tree fall under the umbrella of the Escalante River Watershed Partnership, which is made up of 30 entities that include federal and state and local government, as well as private, nonprofit organizations and individual volunteers. Another group, called the Boulder Community Alliance, is working to address the problem on private land.
What makes the Utah project unique is that there is no road access to the areas where the tree removals will be done, Poe said.
"These conservation corps members have to pack in their own camping gear and supplies," he said, while horse outfitters pack in about 400 pounds of supplies such as chain saws to get the job done.
"It's tough work, but these kids are hard workers."
Conservation corps members not only get a paycheck, he added, they also have the opportunity to earn college credits to be applied for degrees and have increased chances for long-range job prospects.
"It is a good opportunity for them."
The grants are in support of the Obama administration’s efforts to develop a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, or 21CSC, and include nearly $1.3 million from the BLM and the Bureau of Reclamation. That money helped leverage $2.6 million from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and $275,000 from Wells Fargo.
“This initiative is a model of how public-private partnerships can both conserve our land and provide opportunities for our young people to obtain jobs skills and broaden their horizons by connecting with the great outdoors,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a press release.
“Through the 21CSC, we hope to expand these partnerships that foster economic opportunities and create a connection with nature for young people that lasts a lifetime.”
The 21st Century Conservation Service Corps is a national collaborative effort to put America’s youth and returning veterans to work protecting, restoring and enhancing America’s great outdoors. This year, the Interior Department plans to provide conservation employment opportunities to nearly 17,000 youths in national parks, wildlife refuges, and on other public lands.
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