By Bryony Wardell
The longleaf pine tree stands tall and proud as it stretches toward the sun—a pillar for a rich ecosystem brimming with native wildlife and plants. The endangered forests that remain today are iconic patches of a once sprawling haven for biodiversity that used to cover much of the Southeast.
Longleaf forests have become a casualty in a battle for territory at the heart of the wildland-urban interface. As subdivisions and developments overrun the landscape, forested areas shrink and naturally-occurring wildfires that support ecosystem health are suppressed to keep people and property out of harm’s way.
But an innovative new program is nurturing seeds of hope for the forest’s future in a perhaps seemingly unlikely place—the city.
As part of a multi-state initiative to save longleaf pine habitat, The Nature Conservancy is collaborating with Job Corps to provide controlled burn training and jobs to disadvantaged urban youth. The unique partnership began in Jacksonville, Florida in 2014 and has taken root—with more than 50 Job Corps students having participated so far.
Thanks to new grant funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, and the U.S. Forest Service, 2017 is anticipated to be the program’s biggest year yet.
“I thought and hoped this project would catch on—but I didn’t think we could do it this quickly,” says Troy Ettel, director of the Conservancy’s Longleaf Pine Whole System. “It’s building a bridge between underserved youth and natural resource careers.”
Conservancy Job Corps training liaison and fire crew leader, Luis Carrasco, working a prescribed fire at Osceola National Forest in Florida. © The Nature Conservancy (Sherry Crawley)
A Calling for Fire and Restoration
Luis Carrasco is one of the program’s first participants and feels like he has found his calling. His family moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States in pursuit of a better life. But it wasn’t always easy.
When his mother lost her job, Carrasco had to drop out of high school to help pay the bills. In 2013, a friend told him about Jobs Corps, so he signed up to finish his diploma and get a better job. He heard about the new fire crew training program while enrolled in Job Corps and had to check it out.
“I remember playing with a toy fire truck in the sand when I was a kid. I just always wanted to be a fire fighter,” said Carrasco. “I didn’t know if I would be selected to join the fire crew. Maybe it was luck, or maybe God.”
Outfitted with new boots and fresh knowledge, he deployed for a controlled burn assignment in Georgia. Almost right away, Carrasco knew he had found something special.
“It was hard work and I had blisters on my feet, but I was having fun and it felt like home. I realized this could really be a career for me,” said Carrasco. “I looked to the crew members who had more experience than me and just kept asking questions so I could learn from them.”
The training and passion paid off, and today he is a full-time employee with the Conservancy. Serving as Job Corps training liaison and fire crew leader, Carrasco is strengthening the program’s connection to the community. He mentors students, serves as their fire crew guide in the field, and participates in Spanish-language conservation training and outreach.
“It’s about providing young people from all different racial, economic and social backgrounds the opportunity to explore a career path they might not otherwise be exposed to, and where they can bring their ideas,” said Ettel. “When we ask, why are you interested? So many times, even though they’re from an urban environment, we hear, ‘well I always liked nature and being outside.’”
A student gets ready for Job Corps fire program training. © Stephen Morton Photography
Opportunities for Urban Youth
The partnership between the Conservancy and Job Corps is one of the first of its kind and one that Ettel hopes can be a model for conservation career recruitment. Job Corps is a free education and training program funded by the Department of Labor that helps low-income 16- to 24-year-olds gain technical and soft skills needed to start a career and gain financial independence. While it offers traditional trade programs such as masonry, carpentry and electrical work, there’s a push to also provide greener job training to meet employment trends.
Those who successfully complete the fire program classroom training and physical test earn their Incident Qualification Card, or Red Card. The program then connects them to jobs working on controlled burn operations and responding to wildfire emergencies.
“It’s more than a certification. They’re getting hands-on experience working with some of the best crews in the country and getting in front of hiring managers from a wide variety of organizations,” said Shawn Murphy, director of the Jacksonville Job Corps center.
A new cohort wrapped up training in fall 2016 and 20 new recruits were trained and deployed to join established Conservancy fire crews for six-month assignments with the Conservancy’s longleaf pine operations in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
“Working with fire is pretty out-of-the-box, but when you see the students and the work they’re doing, it just makes sense,” said Murphy. “The partnership is a perfect fit.”
New longleaf pine growth after a controlled burn. © Katherine Blackmore
A Sustainable Forest Legacy
Working with partners across a nine-state region, the Conservancy has been fighting for decades to conserve longleaf pine forests with a goal of growing the ecosystem to 8 million acres by 2025. Controlled burn crews play a critical role in rejuvenating the longleaf ecosystem, treating thousands of acres each year with low-intensity controlled burns that recreate the natural life cycle of the landscape. Leaving some of that forest management knowledge on the ground in local communities could be the key to sustainable forest health.
“When I first asked our fire team about this program to see who might be interested, everyone said yes,” said Ettel. “There’s a strong desire to pass on their years of experience to these new recruits.”
A new father to a 6-month-old baby girl, Carrasco is also driven to make a difference for future generations.
“I love this job. I see people with more experience and I want to get there. I want to learn from them and have my own crew one day,” he says. “We are saving lives—for people and for wildlife. It feels great to know I’m protecting something for the world.”
- Private Funds: National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, US Endowment for Forestry and Communities, Dobbs Foundation, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Inc.
- Public Funds: US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service