Creating jobs and training the next generation to restore the Gulf of Mexico.
On January 8-10, I had the opportunity to participate in the orientation and training for the first participants in GulfCorps-a three-year project led by The Nature Conservancy (in partnership with the Student Conservation Association and The Corps Network) to put young adults to work to help restore the Gulf of Mexico. GulfCorps is sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) using funds from the settlement with BP of civil penalties that resulted from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010.
The three-day Orientation brought together newly-formed crews of young people from all five Gulf states at a camp on the shore of Weeks Bay, on Alabama's Gulf coast. The overall purpose of the session was to prepare the corps members for 22 weeks of restoration work, close to the coastal communities where they live-work that will include, for example, building living shorelines, restoring dune fields, removing invasive plants, monitoring the conditions of streams and marshes, and providing better recreational and educational access to natural areas. In addition to introducing the corps members to the information needed to do their jobs safely and cooperatively in the outdoors, the training also was the beginning of their learning new practical and social skills that could lead to permanent jobs.
From the earliest discussions of how to organize and accomplish recovery from the devastating Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010, the Nature Conservancy has advocated for a conservation corps component in the Gulf restoration strategy. Why? Because while we are passionate about the science-based restoration of the Gulf's ecological resources, we also care deeply about the future of the people of the Gulf coast and about their longstanding relationship with the natural resources of the region. More than in many places in America today, the quality and character of life in the communities along the Gulf of Mexico relies heavily on the health of the Gulf and its associated resources.
This relationship is clearly illustrated by the challenges now faced by the home community of one of the first GulfCorps crews-Apalachicola, Florida. The decline of the longstanding oyster industry there has left many residents without jobs and some of the GulfCorps crew members, literally, without homes. Making a living with a small boat and a pair of oyster tongs was never easy, but without a healthy watershed and healthy oyster reefs, a whole way of life will disappear.
We at the Nature Conservancy understand the interdependence of healthy natural systems and the well-being of people. After advocating for the inclusion of funding for a conservation corps in the Gulf to be part of Gulf restoration, we joined together with the Student Conservation Association and The Corps Network to compete for the opportunity to establish and operate the GulfCorps Program because we believe that:
- Well supervised and trained crews of young people can make real and lasting contributions to the restoration of the Gulf; they can accomplish fine-grained tasks that can't and won't be done by bulldozers and dredges.
- If young people from local communities are recruited for this work, they and their friends and families will, through this experience, better understand the relationship of their lives and their natural surroundings and become lifelong stewards of their bays and estuaries.
- Working together with others in the outdoors can provide the skills, discipline and resilience that can lead to successful careers whether in natural resource management or elsewhere.
- We as an organization have an obligation to reach out to the diverse people who live along the Gulf to help young people of many backgrounds participate in shaping the future of the places where they and, ultimately, their children will live.
The Nature Conservancy cannot, however, accomplish these goals alone. Key to the success of this project is working cooperatively with community-based organizations in each state who recruit corps members from within their communities, supervise their activities on a day to day basis, and assist the corps members to gain new skills and confidence in their abilities. For GulfCorps, our on-the-ground partner organizations include:
- Conservation Corps of the Forgotten Coast in Apalachicola, FL
- Student Conservation Association in Mobile, AL
- Climb CDC Conservation Corps in Gulfport, MS
- Limitless Vistas, Inc in New Orleans, LA
- American YouthWorks in Houston, TX
The Director of the Gulf Corps project for TNC is Jeff DeQuattro, a member of the TNC Gulf of Mexico Team. He has done a terrific job working with others to launch GulfCorps. One evening After a long day of orientation, I watched him standing around a campfire beside the Weeks Bay shoreline, talking easily with some of the young corps members. It was clear that he was able to transcend barriers of age, education, race and background to inspire them to consider goals for their lives and their place in this world that they might never have imagined a few months ago. It is in this way that nature and justice can come together to create the better Gulf and the better world to which we all aspire.