Here Comes the Corps

When you check out Santa Cruz Island this summer, you might see a bald eagle soaring overhead or a Channel Island fox darting in the sagebrush.  But if you see a whirling cloud of dust, look closer; it’s probably the L.A. Conservation Corps, hard at work restoring the island to its native habitat. The project is one of several the Corps has underway that makes use of perhaps Southern California’s most overlooked resource – its youth.

Founded in 1986 to provide at-risk young adults with education and job training in area conservation, the Corps has teamed up with The Nature Conservancy – custodian of most of the island since 1987 — to help repair Santa Cruz after more than a century of intensive ranching.

Both The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service (which manages the eastern end of the island) have already been successful in entirely removing the feral sheep and pigs that once altered the island’s landscape. They’ve also reintroduced the bald eagles that DDT poisoning had chased out nearly five decades ago and breathed life into the endangered Channel Island fox population. Now the L.A. Conservation Corps is tackling the nitty gritty of pulling out invasive flora like eucalyptus and kikuyu grass, plant by plant.

For the city dwelling young adults that the Corps sends to Santa Cruz, the project means paid on-the-job training and a desert island adventure, but it’s also hard work.

Arriving by two-hour boat ride out of Ventura, the troop of 8 to 10 Corps members (plus a supervisor) makes landfall at Prisoner’s Harbor on the north side of the island for the start of their five-day expedition, or “spike” as the trips are called in Corps lingo. They set up headquarters at a UCSB research station, then strike out on hikes to work sites all over the island, targeting palettes of invasive vegetation.

Using tools brought from home, the green commandos spend the day knee deep in the dirt, under the sun, yanking out trees and shrubs; afterward they trek back to base camp where they cook dinner before crashing into bed to do it all over again the next day. But a “spike” is not simply a nice way of saying “chain gang.” Otherwise, the Corps’ young adults wouldn’t be lining up to do it. It’s a chance for them to touch nature a world away from L.A.’s urban jungle.

Getting in on a spike is a “competitive process” says Dan Knapp, the Corps’ Deputy Director. “Candidates have to be Corps members in good standing. They have to sign a contract. They have to be willing to give 100 percent.”

Altogether there are about 500 18 to 24 year olds in the Corps’ Young Adult program. (Another 1,800 middle and high school students are part of the Corps’ Clean and Green program.) Most aren’t high school graduates. When they’re not working in places like Santa Cruz Island, they are studying for their high school diploma in one of the Corps’ charter schools. Once they graduate, they become eligible for $250,000 in scholarship funds the Corps awards every year for post secondary education. “Everything from truck driving school to four-year college,” says Knapp, although it’s hoped some of them will pursue careers in conservation. And, depending on the amount of hours spent in the field, members can earn AmeriCorps stipends of up to $5,550.

Santa Cruz Island isn’t the only place you’ll find the Corps in the Southland. They’re in Cleveland and San Bernardino National Forests, maintaining trails and campsites and repairing ecological damage from illegal marijuana farms. They’re keeping paths clear for hikers up and down the Pacific Crest Trail, working on mine closures and putting up bat gates. Thanks to a grant from the JiJi Foundation – a Seattle based group dedicated to funding environmental initiatives from Baja California to Alaska – they’ve mapped the vast 270,000 acre Tejon Ranch for invasive vegetation and will start eradication this Fall.

But back to Santa Cruz. Not all work this year involves pulling up plants. Coordinating efforts with a journeyman carpenter, a team of Corps members recently removed a series of historically significant corrals from Prisoner’s Harbor for relocation to a more appropriate part of the island. The harbor – really more of a sleepy cove – was the island’s hub back in its ranching days but is being restored to its original wetland habitat.

Later this summer, it’s back to weeding – but with a twist. Funded again by the JiJi Foundation, and under the technical guidance of Native Range (an eco-restoration contractor) and the University of Hawaii, Corps members, armed with paintball guns loaded with herbicide, will climb aboard helicopters to target invasive plants in hard to reach places like cliff sides. Yes, weeding by helicopter

We are positive Knapp can expect a few takers for that gig.

 Interested in community oriented environmental work? Click here if you want to join the L.A. Conservation Corps and here if you’re interested in hiring the Corps for community clean up or restoration work.

While the L.A. Conservation Corp is dedicated to providing opportunities to at-risk youth and young adults, the National Civilian Community Corps (a part of AmeriCorps) also focuses on 18 – 24 years olds but its members come from all walks of life. Like the L.A. Conservation Corp, scholarships are available. Click here to learn more.

— James Myers