What does Los Angeles’ inner city have in common with a rugged island off the southern California coast? A group of young people who are dedicated to making the world a better and greener place. Through an innovative partnership between the LA Conservation Corps and The Nature Conservancy, at-risk youth between the ages of 18 and 24 are helping to restore Santa Cruz Island, while gaining valuable green job training in these difficult economic times.
The LA Conservation Corps, founded in 1986, helps transform the lives of at-risk young adults and school-age children by providing them with educational opportunities and work experience. The Corps offers a variety of programs that benefit both the environment and the community, such as paid employment in the conservation field and charter schools for young adults who are unsuccessful in traditional high schools, as well as after-school activities and youth development.
Joining forces with The Nature Conservancy, Corps members participate in preserving the biological richness of the largest and most spectacular of California’s Channel Islands. This program offers work experience and mentoring by Conservancy and Native Range scientists and staff members, at the same time that it transports these young adults from an urban setting to Santa Cruz Island’s diverse landscapes—deep canyons, dramatic peaks, pine forests and 77 miles of coastline.
Begun in 1978, The Nature Conservancy’s work on Santa Cruz Island has brought it back from the brink of ecological disaster. The Conservancy has labored to preserve the island’s more than 1,000 species of plants and animals—among them 12 species found nowhere else on Earth. Projects include saving the endangered Santa Cruz Island fox from extinction, reintroducing bald eagles, protecting the rare island scrub-jay and eradicating invasive plants so that native species can flourish.
An often rough two-hour boat ride brings LA Conservation Corps members to Santa Cruz Island, where they learn about a variety of conservation practices and about this unique environment and its inhabitants. In particular, they discover the benefits of managing invasive species and join in removal efforts—a project that has allowed them to really dig in and get their hands dirty. Their five-day sojourns, called “spikes,” include educational tours, fieldwork with Conservancy staff and weed control professionals and hiking to remote parts of the island to reach work sites.
This groundbreaking partnership between the LA Conservation Corps and the Conservancy on Santa Cruz Island demonstrates the importance and viability of green jobs. Given current economic conditions, green jobs—which frequently offer higher pay—represent a great avenue for young people seeking employment. This program, providing indispensable skills training and experience, gives them a great head start in the job market while serving as a model for public agencies and educational institutions charged with preparing the next generation of workers and conservationists.
The program has also had a big impact on its participants, among them Nora Ponce, Jeffrey Hernandez and Nick Hernandez.
Twenty-four-year-old Nora Ponce was born in Honduras but has lived in South Los Angeles since the age of 10. She graduated from the LA Conservation Corps’ Headquarter Charter High School this year. Nora is very committed to helping the community, and she believes that the Corps members “make a big difference.” What Nora most enjoys about the work on Santa Cruz Island—aside from the boat ride—is the island itself and meeting new people. She was surprised to learn, when she participated in the felling of a large invasive stone pine last year, that conservation work is not all about planting but also about removing plants that are disruptive to an ecosystem. Speaking about her trip to Santa Cruz Island, she stated, “It’s an amazing experience.”
According to Jeffrey Hernandez, one of the advantages of working on Santa Cruz Island is “the fact that I'm outdoors, smack-dab in the middle of nature, and nothing between us.” The 20-year-old Los Angeles native attended various high schools seeking a better education until he found the Corps. As part of the Santa Cruz Island project, he has enjoyed learning about the island and about the plants that inhabit it. By way of encouraging other young people to take part in the program, he suggests, "Try it out for yourself, because anything I say to describe it will not measure up to the experience and fun you will have."
Nick Hernandez, who says he loves everything about the Santa Cruz Island experience, has made the trip four times. Now 19, he graduated from the LA Conservation Corps charter high school and will continue to work for the Corps for six more months (the Corps commitment is 18 months). Nick describes his home in South Central Los Angeles as a “concrete jungle . . . which is why I like going out into the wilderness.” Over the course of his visits to Santa Cruz Island, he has become passionate about removing non-native plants, and he feels very gratified about supporting “Mother Earth.” From his experience in conservation, he urges people to “help the Earth, grow plants and trees and recycle.”