Employing Youth to Protect Our Natural Heritage: Win-Win Solutions in Tough Economic Times

Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich have a plan to whittle away the youth unemployment rate and protect our public lands. With the recent reintroduction of the Public Lands Service Corps Act of 2013, the senators aim to provide young people with job training and educational opportunities, while addressing the backlog of conservation and restoration projects piling up on our public lands.

The expansion of conservation corps activities would help solve at least two national challenges. First, the legislation would begin to address the youth unemployment rate which hovers at 13.1 percent, nearly double the national unemployment rate. "Passing this legislation would help combat the unacceptably high unemployment young people face by providing them with job training, education and skills they can utilize long into their careers," said Senator Tom Udall. The Outdoor Industry Association just released their annual report which found that outdoor recreation supports 6.1 million jobs and generates $646 billion in consumer spending in America. The corps experience would give today's youth a cost-effective leg up in pursuing careers in conservation and recreation.

Second, the bill would help inspire a new generation of conservation leaders. I challenge you to find one conservation leader today that can tell you that their interest in the environment did not begin with the time they spent in the outdoors during their youth. Today's young people are spending less time outdoors then their parents did one generation ago. Instead of exploring the natural world, young people are using their free time surfing a virtual world -- today's youth spend 7.5 hours each day plugged into electronic media. At a time when the divide between people and the natural world seems to grow every day, the corps experience can connect more and more youth to the great outdoors. Public lands stewardship training will also better equip corps participants to tackle the challenges our lands and communities face due to climate disruption. The legislation would encourage participation among young people (aged 15 to 25) from communities with high unemployment rates and create new incentives to encourage young Native Americans and veterans to participate.

The legislation would accomplish all of this by raising the priority of conservation corps activities within the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, and establish new authority for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the Department of Commerce to participate in the program. The bill would also expand the scope of eligible activities to include historical, scientific and cultural research, visitor services and interpretation. Representative Raúl Grijalva introduced similar legislation in the House of Representatives during the 112th Congress.

The Public Lands Service Corps Act is a win-win for the economy and the planet. It would support valuable conservation and restoration projects as well as improve visitor services in our parks, improving the health and resiliency of our public lands while ensuring greater opportunities for more people to explore and enjoy the lands that we love.