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Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps gets new life along the Gulf coast

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) is a public work relief program for unemployed young men age 18-24, providing unskilled manual labor related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural areas of the United States.  Here, a group erects a fence, July 26, 1940. (AP Photo)
ASSOCIATED PRESS
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The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) is a public work relief program for unemployed young men age 18-24, providing unskilled manual labor related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural areas of the United States. Here, a group erects a fence, July 26, 1940. (AP Photo)

The Civilian Conservation Corps put Americans to work on public projects during the Great Depression. That was almost ninety years ago. Now a new corps is working to improve Alabama’s coastal environment.

On a hot autumn afternoon, crews clear palmetto brush from the side of a trail in Baldwin County. These young people are about to head out for a year of service on environmental projects from Tallahassee to the Rio Grande. This is Gulf Corps.

“We remove invasive species. We build oyster reefs and living shorelines,” said Jeff DeQuattro, director of restoration and the Gulf Corps program director for the Nature Conservancy. “We've done lots of projects that you can go to and see, lots of marsh plantings, lots of tree plantings, prescribed fires. One thing that people see most of are the trails and the boardwalks and the piers that we've rebuilt.”

A federal investigative board concludes that the last-ditch safety device that didn't stop the 2010 BP oil spill had multiple failures.
The Associated Press
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A federal investigative board concludes that the last-ditch safety device that didn't stop the 2010 BP oil spill had multiple failures.

Money from the 2010 BP oil spill pays for Gulf Corps. That money helps support corps members during their service. DeQuattri says about one hundred corps members will send a year working on environmental projects throughout the Gulf Coast.

“We hire five different Conservation Corps organizations across the Gulf and those organizations do their own recruiting and their own hiring because they're the ones that are really imbedded in the local communities across the Gulf,” said DeQuattro. “So, they know their audience. They already have a large bank of people that utilize their services or may know about their services.”

The funding will support the program for eight years. Gulf Corps is starting its sixth year and has, so far, trained more than 360 people. DeQuattro says most are veterans now working in environmental fields.

“Gulf Corps is a product of oil spill fines and it's meant to bring young people from the Gulf into the fold when it comes to the restoration and conservation of the environment and the damages that were done by the oil spill,” he said.

FILE - In this June 6, 1933 file photo, President Franklin D. Roosevelt is shown signing the Wagner Unemployment Bill at the White House in Washington. Standing, from left are: Rep. Theodore A. Peyser, D-N.Y.; Labor Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins; and Sen. Robert Wagner, D-N.Y. (AP Photo, File)
AP
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AP
FILE - In this June 6, 1933 file photo, President Franklin D. Roosevelt is shown signing the Wagner Unemployment Bill at the White House in Washington. Standing, from left are: Rep. Theodore A. Peyser, D-N.Y.; Labor Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins; and Sen. Robert Wagner, D-N.Y. (AP Photo, File)

DeQuattro says the program is something like the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create the corps following the stock market crash of 1929. That was when he told Americans there was nothing to fear but fear itself. DeQuattro says the Civilian Conservation Corp provided young people with training while doing public services.

“There were no women allowed in the first CCC and now we are about 50% female in our cohort this year, so that's really great to see,” DeQuattro observed. “We also then push the members to get a career job after they're done, which is a bit of an added element that conservation corps elements typically haven't done in the past.”

“I just think that Gulf Corps is an opportunity for people such as me who come from like an ethnic, diverse, female background to become like a strong leader in conservation because I didn't have that where I grew up,” Violetta Leilani Curameng is coastal restoration field coordinator for the American Youth Works Texas Conservation Corps. She started out as a Gulf Corps volunteer and now trains other young people for environmental service.

“As a member, we've worked on projects from chain-sawing invasive species to even building artificial bird rookeries where coastal nesting birds come. They have their babies. They grow up and then they fly away and we do it all over again. It's really fun,” said Curameng. “Really seeing an opportunity to work with youth who have had an opportunity to work in conservation or they don't know the really cool ecosystems around them. It's awesome to inspire them and show them like 'Hey, look, there's an alligator here,' and they're like 'we have alligators?' and you're like 'oh, yeah, we do. Do you want to see one like a baby?'

Pixabay
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“This is the perfect job for me,” said Laney Brager. She’s a coastal crew leader with SCA Alabama in Mobile. SCA is short for Student Conservation Association

“It combines being outside, conservation, education, working with people, said Brager. “Building a community is really the most exciting part of this program to me, working with different young people that are excited and interested in the same things that I'm interested in as well as the project partners are a highlight of the project to me because interfacing with them and networking with them really has shown the wide array of jobs that go into supporting conservation in this area.”

Brager started out as a Gulf Corps volunteer after doing freelance environmental work after graduating from college.

“I wanted to get back outside because I majored in environmental science and I had done a lot of field work while I was in college and I had the opportunity to work with Louisiana conservation corps, Brager said. “I was a crew leader with them last season and I had been living in Mobile and commuting to Louisiana every week. So, I was really looking for the opportunity to move back to Mobile and I was excited to start this position as crew leader with SC Alabama.”

Guy Busby
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Her jobs in Louisiana ranged from hurricane cleanup in Grand Isle to controlled burns to clear brush. One job stands out, however.

“I was working in the Catahoula Ranger District over in Louisiana. We were working on surveying river cane and this was a partnership between some of the local tribes who had a contract with the park service to come in and harvest some of the river cane for their basket making and some of their other traditions,” Brager recalled. “So, we were able to actually go out and find where the stands of river cane were and map them so that they were able to go and have those records and harvest that river cane. So that was really just an amazing project for me because it combined so many of those interests.”

For the Gulf Corps members, working to improve the environment isn’t just a matter of clearing brush or building trails, it’s teaching people that they can make a difference to improve the environment. Again, Leilani Curameng.

“I think it's important because more of the youth and young people nowdays, they're realizing how bad our climate is and how bad our impact on our environment is and opportunities like this give them a chance to better our environment and their communities and themselves to learn more about 'yeah, there's a climate crisis and the world may end, but also what if we do this to help take away the impacts of human populations on the environment and then you can educate others and then it's full circle. It grows,” said Curameng.

Guy Busby is an Alabama native and lifelong Gulf Coast resident. He has been covering people, events and interesting occurrences on America’s South Coast for more than 20 years. His experiences include riding in hot-air balloons and watching a ship being sunk as a diving reef. His awards include a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists as part of the APR team on the series “Oil and Water,” on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some of his other interests include writing, photography and history. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Silverhill.
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