04/18/2014 09:10 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2014

Green Service: Creating Opportunity and Protecting Our Planet

Like many transitioning service members, Mike Bremer was having a tough time finding work after he came home. Then he joined AmeriCorps, serving on the all veterans fire team with the Southwest Conservation Corps. With the skills he learned, Mike was able to secure a job with the U.S. Forest Service as a full-time firefighter.

A few years ago, Candace Walker was a high school dropout with bleak prospects for the future. Through AmeriCorps, she earned her high school diploma and gained valuable work skills while preserving urban parks in Oakland. Now she is attending college and is a leader in her community.

Mike and Candace embody a powerful principle of environmental service: by protecting our environment, we also expand economic opportunity. Going green is good for our economy and our planet.

As we gear up for Earth Day, it's important to highlight this connection, and expand opportunities for green service. Fortunately, we have a long and proud foundation to build upon.

Eighty years ago, the Civilian Conservation Corps engaged millions of young men in building parks and trails, providing skills and experience to a generation of young people. Over the past four decades, a large network conservation corps have emerged, benefitting the environment and those who serve.

Today, AmeriCorps continues this tradition by focusing on 21st-century environmental challenges -- from pollution and habitat loss to forest fires and climate change. Whether improving public lands, restoring waterways, increasing energy efficiency, or educating the public, AmeriCorps makes a positive and lasting impact on our planet.

All this month, we are highlighting AmeriCorps focus on the environment. Our agency makes a significant investment in this area, with more than 10,000 AmeriCorps members engaged in environmental service activities each year. In 2012, AmeriCorps members improved more than 1 million acres of parks, built or maintained 14,300 miles or trails or rivers, weatherized 2,100 homes, taught 196,000 people energy efficiency, and recycled 880 tons of materials, among other accomplishments.

I first learned about the value of AmeriCorps while serving as director of the Florida Park Service. Our AmeriCorps members provided critical services in habitat restoration, prescribed burning, trail maintenance, historical restoration, environmental education and volunteer management. As they helped our parks, they also helped themselves, by gaining skills and experience to launch conservation careers.

Our nation is blessed to have such abundant natural resources and strong leadership at every level for preserving parks and public lands. But budget constraints have created a huge backlog of work on our public lands. National service is a cost-effective strategy to address this backlog while training young people and veterans for the green jobs of the future.

Through the president's Task Force on Expanding National Service, we are working with federal partners to expand service opportunities to meet the nation's environmental and energy conservation needs. We're excited to be part of efforts to create a 21st-century Conservation Service Corps to put America's youth and returning veterans to work protecting, restoring and enhancing America's great outdoors.

Of course, not all of AmeriCorps environmental service happens on public lands. Our members also do critical work in energy conservation: helping reduce carbon emissions and save energy costs by weatherizing homes, performing energy audits, promoting renewable energy, and educating citizens about energy efficiency.

AmeriCorps members make cities greener, by creating and maintaining city parks, promoting recycling, planting community gardens and more. And they help instill the ethic of stewardship in future generations, through environmental education, youth service projects and connecting Americans to the outdoors.

Whatever they are doing to help the planet, AmeriCorps members are also advancing economic opportunity -- for our communities and for those who serve.

As we celebrate Earth Day, let's thank all those who dedicate themselves to environmental service, and find our own ways to give back to our planet.

Wendy Spencer is the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that engages more than 5 million Americans in service each year through AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, the Social Innovation Fund, and other programs.