WASHINGTON -- The Department of Interior announced a new partnership on Tuesday with outdoor retailer The North Face to promote the work of citizen conservation corps across the country.
Through the partnership, North Face is providing $25,000 grants to four corps, which are part of the 21st Century Conservation Corps. The corps enlist high school and college students, as well as veterans and other older volunteers, in conservation projects in National Parks and other public lands, doing work like maintaining trails and removing invasive species.
One grant will go to Team Rubicon, which works with veterans, and the other three grants recognize individual corps members and will be used to support the work of each one's group: Jeremy Taitano of the Student Conservation Association, LaJuan Tucker of American YouthWorks, and Anthony Ciocco of the group Conservation Legacy. North Face is also launching an ad campaign that promotes the work of the corps.
The announcement is part of the Department of Interior's larger effort to attract private and corporate money to support getting more young people engaged in the outdoors and in conservation work.
For Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the partnership is part of the broader effort she's championed to get more young people engaged in public lands. "We really have to work hard to make sure parks feel safe and are welcoming to all people," Jewell said in an interview with The Huffington Post last week.
Jaime Matyas, president of the Student Conservation Association, said the funds will help the group get more high school students from urban areas engaged in summer programs. The group works with 10,000 high school and college students every year, but has to turn away 80 percent of applicants because they don't have the program resources to accommodate all of them.
Jewell said she hoped the ad campaign will help draw more attention to the corps. "We appreciate [North Face's] willingness to bring their marketing clout and their contacts to bear so that we can raise significant visibility about the importance of these efforts, and hope that many, many more young people will sign up and join," said said.
North Face President Todd Spaletto said the initiative represents "strong shared values" with the conservation corps. "We love this idea of supporting the commonality that reinforces our corporate and consumer values, which is protecting these great places and really celebrating them," said Spaletto.
Conservation corps, in particular, offer a way to connect. "I have worked beside many young people doing service on public lands," said Jewell. "The way it changes their lives, and the way it puts on their radar a sense of being and a sense of purpose that they didn't have going in is really extraordinary," said Jewell, who was once on the other side of public-private partnerships as the chief executive of Recreational Equipment Inc., or REI.
"The business community wants to be helpful," said Jewell. "And the business community stands to gain in many ways from partnership with us."
North Face had previously committed $250,000 to the Department of Interior's 21st Century Conservation Service Corps work. American Eagle Outfitters, CamelBak and the Coca-Cola Foundation have also supported the programming. Jewell said the agency is about halfway to its $20 million goal for private and corporate fundraising.
Jewell sees it as a way to fund conservation work at a time when budgets are strapped. "We aspire to engage future generations in this work. We don’t have the budget that we would like to do this," said Jewell. She said this is particularly important ahead of the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016, when there's an $11 billion maintenance backlog for the parks.
Kristen Brengel, senior director for legislation and policy at the National Parks Conservation Association, said there are always "lingering concerns" about corporate funding for parks and conservation. "We don't want basic operations to be covered by private dollars. That doesn’t give Congress the incentive to fund parks adequately," she said. But those private funds are "essential," she said, especially for programs like the conservation corps.
"A lot of times those are the first thing that gets cut from budgets," said Brengel.