Invest in a robust civilian climate corps to build our resiliency — our lives depend on it

california wildfires santa cruz winds 94 miles per hour mph 2021 2020 cal fire
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A firefighter sprays water on hot spots while battling the Glass Fire on October 01, 2020 in Calistoga, California.

Once again, the American West is facing a devastating wildfire season. It’s only September and over 4.9 million acres have burned, surpassing the total acreage burned in all of 2019

This month – National Preparedness Month – is a good time for families to make a wildfire emergency plan, but there are also measures we must take as a nation to build our wildfire readiness. Investing in a robust Civilian Climate Corps (CCC) would give us a historic opportunity to strengthen our climate resiliency and develop the wildfire response and recovery workforce we urgently need.

Our communities cannot wait for action. The 2020 wildfire season was the second most destructive in U.S. history and the worst in Colorado history. Three of the largest wildfires Colorado has ever witnessed happened last year. The state also experienced some of the worst air quality in the world this summer, as well as fatal flash flooding within the Cameron Peak Fire burn scar. The impacts of the climate crisis are at our doorstep, threatening lives, health, and property. 

There are projects we must complete to help communities prepare for and recover from wildfires. Fortunately, we have a model to complete this work. In the 1930s, faced with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Corps built iconic parks we use today, planted billions of trees, and saved millions of Americans from poverty. 

There is also already a modern corps model. There are more than 130 corps across the country operated by non-profits, state governments, and universities. These programs — located in rural towns and big cities alike — are grounded in communities and responsive to local needs. Many programs have partnered with local, state, and federal agencies for decades to engage young people in disaster resilience, conservation, and park maintenance projects.

Through their service, young people earn certifications: from 2019 – 2020 more than 860 earned federal wildland firefighting credentials. A Civilian Climate Corps initiative would connect a new generation with climate resiliency jobs and help communities and land agencies do critical preparedness and recovery work that otherwise could not be addressed. 

In Colorado, young adults serving with the Mile High Youth Corps are helping seniors and low-income homeowners make their properties more fire resistant. Larimer County Conservation Corps is working with local government to spread seeds and install hundreds of erosion control structures on lands affected by the Cameron Peak Fire. And Rocky Mountain Youth Corps is helping national forests recover from the East Troublesome Fire: this season they improved over 14 miles of trails, removed hazardous trees, and installed thousands of feet of water diversion structures. 

Not to mention, there is an opportunity to expand on the important climate justice work undertaken every day by corps in our cities, like improving stormwater infrastructure, weatherizing low-income homes, and building green spaces in urban heat islands. 

Imagine if we could do more projects like these. Imagine if land agencies and municipalities could engage many more people in conservation and climate work. Imagine if we could train more people for jobs that make our country more sustainable. A 21st Century CCC will prioritize inclusion while employing people to do work that is essential, like suppressing wildfires, preventing catastrophic flooding, and restoring spaces impacted by climate change and decades of environmental injustice.  

The current corps community annually engages about 20,000 diverse young people. From 2019 – 2020, they restored 1.73 million acres, planted 1.3 million trees, and built or maintained over 25,000 miles of trails that help sustain our outdoor economy. We can make a significant and necessary impact on our climate future by engaging hundreds of thousands in CCC projects.

Right now, as we watch our Gulf Coast recover from Hurricane Ida and our Western states face some of the largest fires in U.S. history, we need to take action. This National Preparedness Month, our country must reflect on what we’re doing to prepare our youth, economy and communities for the climate reality in which we live. We are not doing enough. By investing in a Civilian Climate Corps, we have a historic opportunity to create good jobs, develop an equitable climate-ready workforce, and address climate change. We can’t let this opportunity pass.

Joe Neguse represents Colorado’s 2nd District in Congress and serves as chair of the U.S. Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. Mary Ellen Sprenkel is the president and CEO of The Corps Network, the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps. 

Tags Civilian Climate Corps Climate change Joe Neguse wifldfires

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