Wyoming Hopes to Create a Conservation Corps of Its Own, Although Idea Sparking Controversy

The open space and snow-capped mountains of scenic Wyoming attract plenty of young volunteers to work outdoors in conservation programs. The problem is, most of them aren't coming from Wyoming.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The open space and snow-capped mountains of scenic Wyoming attract plenty of young volunteers to work outdoors in conservation programs. The problem is, most of them aren't coming from Wyoming.

Conservation corps from Utah, Montana and Colorado have been completing community and public-land improvement projects in the state because Wyoming doesn't have a corps of its own. Students at the University of Wyoming and a state lawmaker want to change that.

Law student Nicholas Agopian and state Sen. Kit Jennings, R-Casper, want to start a Wyoming Conservation Corps and link it to the energy industry. Both see ample opportunity for the corps to work on reclamation projects and feel the program could influence the next generation of miners and petroleum engineers on environmental concerns.

The corps could do a variety of different projects, such as trail maintenance, planting trees, reclamation work, fighting noxious weeds or building fences, Agopian said.

People involved with conservation corps elsewhere warn about such a partnership. Jono McKinney, executive director of the Montana Conservation Corps, said it's important to think of conservation corps as youth development programs, not cheap labor for energy companies.

Matt Ferris, special projects coordinator for the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, echoed that concern.

"If it's something the corporation is trying to do to escape its responsibility, that's not a good thing," Ferris said. "But if it's something the corporation is trying to do to be responsible and to involve youth by giving them work skills and a sense of accomplishment, then that's a good thing."

That's exactly what Agopian, who worked for the Montana Conservation Corps in 2001, wants to achieve.

"I didn't have much experience doing community service work before doing the program," Agopian said. "Since then, I've been involved with several other nonprofit organizations, and I'm back wanting to create this program for the state because I think it's such a great program."

For now, the program will have to wait. The state Legislature rejected Jennings' request for about $330,000 in startup money, but Agopian is looking at other sources of funding -- such as federal government or private money -- and still hopes to have crews working by summer 2007.

The program is still in the planning stages, Agopian said, and no energy companies have committed to using the corps yet.

The startup money would have paid for equipment, operating costs, a full-time coordinator and living stipends for students who participate. Agopian said the program would eventually become self sufficient by charging organizations fees for its services.

Jennings said such a program would put "a streak of green" into future energy industry professionals. He wants to get them thinking about what effect drilling has on the environment.

After completing the program, students could apply for education grants funded by the National Corporation for Community Service to help pay for school, Agopian said.

Launched in California in 1976, the corps are state and local programs that engage primarily youth and young adults in full-time community service, training and educational activities.

Members, who currently work in communities across 37 states and the District of Columbia, are heirs to the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era program that engaged 6 million young men.

In 2003, national corps budgets totaled $313 million nationwide, with 32 percent derived from fee-for-service revenue and the balance from variety of federal sources, state, county and municipal appropriations, and foundation and corporate grants.

McKinney said the Montana corps has completed several projects in Wyoming, including work in the Shoshone, at Devil's Tower and in Grand Teton National Park. The group has also worked throughout Yellowstone National Park.

McKinney said the Wyoming approach of involving energy companies could be an innovative way to keep the corps going.

"Corps are not cheap programs," McKinney said. "If you get energy industry behind it for the right reasons, I think it could be a sustainable model to keep a corps going."

Source: Associated Press

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