Cultivating Future Conservation Leaders

The Urban Conservation Corps is an investment in young people and natural resources.

Every kid should have a creek. I had mine, a little silver rill that spilled through my grandma’s farm in central Georgia. Through the mystical chords of memory I can hear the closing wooden clack of her screen door already five yards behind me as I high-stepped it toward the freedom of the fields and woods. It was as joyful as eating ice cream on a hot day. The world was mine to discover and own then, an open book, the pages yet to be written 50-some years ago. Discovering turtles and fish and oaks and the brambles, they all made their mark on my future. Knowing nature steered me down a path in biology and toward a career in conservation.

Not every child can have a creek, of course. And in this time when our population is increasingly urbanized, the opportunity for youngsters to fully immerse themselves in nature is becoming increasingly difficult. Couple urbanization with the fact that children typically have a highly regimented schedule and you can quickly see that engagement with the out-of-doors is not always the norm.

Life without an appreciation for nature should be a concern for all people who love the out-of-doors, and I have tried to promote the appreciation of nature and conservation whenever possible. To that end, the first crew of young adults has just completed their rotation in the newly established Middle Rio Grande Urban Conservation Corps. The Corps is sponsored in partnership by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Corps is comprised of a body of young people ages 15 to 18, who for 12 weeks worked on projects in the Albuquerque, New Mexico, area. They planted pollinator gardens, built erosion control structures to keep soil where it belongs, maintained hiking trails, and gave conservation and recreation presentations at YMCAs and community centers. The program was much more than a job — each teen was guided by a mentor who works in the conservation profession. One weekend per month through November, participants will act as ambassadors at scheduled events. These young people were employed in their own backyard, the middle Rio Grande Valley — rich in cultural and natural history — at the intersection of diverse biomes and peoples.

Based on feedback, it seems that the Corps’ budding conservationists likely acquired something essential to appreciating nature: a natural resource stewardship ethic. I expect many Corps participants to come back next summer, and ultimately my hope is they will apply for summer internships between college semesters to work in the conservation field, and eventually become future conservation leaders.

I consider our support to the Urban Conservation Corps an investment in young people just as conservation of natural resources is an investment in the future. The 15-year-old of today is a decade from a grown, mature, societally immersed and gainfully employed adult. No matter if they choose a trade or pursue academics — whether they labor by brain or brawn — it’s most important that they come away from the Corps experience with a better understanding of nature and an appreciation of what is all around them. Most of all, they understand that they can affect its future by acquiring a sound stewardship ethic.

My creek inspired me to pursue conservation as a profession. By enabling our Middle Rio Grande Urban Conservation Corps participants to experience synergy with nature, such as I did at my Grandma’s creek, they will better understand that stewardship of natural things is simply an instinctive part of the human experience. And perhaps nurturing that conservation instinct will inspire them to become better citizens, appreciate our natural resource heritage, and potentially become the conservation leaders of tomorrow.

Benjamin N. Tuggle, Ph.D., is director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, based in Albuquerque. To learn more visit

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