Can Volunteers Save Federal Lands and Create a Hiring Pipeline for Agencies?

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said there are more individuals willing to volunteer on federal lands projects than agencies can currently handle. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said there are more individuals willing to volunteer on federal lands projects than agencies can currently handle. Alex Brandon/AP

Lawmakers in both chambers of Congress and political parties want to create a corps of volunteers to help maintain and preserve federal lands and parks, who would then receive a leg up when applying for federal jobs.

The 2017 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Act would codify and expand the use of existing programs allowing federal land management agencies to use volunteers to fill vacancies on restoration projects. The measure would target veterans, underprivileged youth, inner-city kids and others.

Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., said there is a backlog of maintenance projects at National Parks and other federal lands that is preventing the public from visiting and enjoying the areas.

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“This isn’t a problem that money alone can fix; we need to think innovatively and pragmatically to address this growing problem,” McSally said. “My bipartisan bill leverages existing resources in a smarter way to get these projects moving.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who introduced the bill in the Senate, said there are more individuals willing to volunteer on federal lands projects than agencies can currently handle. The bill would create more opportunities for agencies to take advantage of their services. Its goal is to eventually create a cadre of 100,000 young adults and veterans to work on maintenance and improvement projects on federal lands and waters.

Agencies already depend on 200 organizations with more than 25,000 volunteers to help carry out their missions. The bill would seek to significantly boost that total by creating more formal and flexible partnerships with those groups. Agencies would not receive more resources for the volunteer program, but more agencies would be eligible to work with the existing conglomerate of organizations. Each agency would have its own coordinator to oversee the public-private partnership.

Volunteers would receive training and work for stints of up to one year. After participating, they would be eligible for non-competitive hiring for two years.

The bill would codify a memorandum of understanding issued by the Obama administration in 2013 between the organizations and some land management agencies. The private sector, non-profit collaboration, however, has taken place since the 1950s, said Tyler Wilson, director of government relations at The Corps Network. Member organizations have spearheaded projects ranging from trail maintenance to invasive species removal to disaster response. To date, that work has generally taken place at the National Park Service and the Forest Service. Wilson said if the bill is passed, he envisions volunteers helping with projects at the departments of Defense or Veterans Affairs.

“The bill would put some real infrastructure and management and reporting structures in place,” at federal agencies, Wilson said. 

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a cosponsor on the House bill, said the measure would help federal agencies ensure their public lands are open to visitors.

“Unfortunately, there is a mounting backlog of National Park Service projects that is impeding our ability to enjoy these vast open spaces,” Moulton said. “This bipartisan bill effectively joins service with stewardship, and in doing so, it will make our country a better place.”

Emily Douce, the associate director of budget and analysis for the National Parks Conservation Association, praised the bill, but called it just one “piece of the puzzle trying to address the needs of federal lands.” She emphasized the importance of also receiving sufficient operations and construction funding from Congress. President Trump in his fiscal 2018 budget proposed cutting the Interior Department’s budget by 12 percent while eliminating 4,000 jobs, though lawmakers have mostly met the proposal with resistance. 

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