Federal bill would put thousands of people to work on public lands

Two bills making their way through the U.S. House and Senate could put tens of thousands of people aged 16 to 30 to work to “conserve, restore and enhance the great outdoors of the United States.”

The 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Act of 2017 would amend a 1993 law to encourage enlarging a group of young adults and veterans that would tackle maintenance on public lands throughout the U.S.

While the new corps could be used locally by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, national lands and parks are also in dire need of maintenance, with a congressional report from last year saying that deferred maintenance on public lands has reached an astounding $18.62 billion.

“Many facilities and natural resources located on eligible service lands are in disrepair or degraded and in need of labor intensive rehabilitation, restoration and enhancement work,” the 1993 act reads, “which cannot be carried out by Federal agencies at existing personnel levels.”

Ideally, the House bill — backed by Republicans and Democrats, and paired with similar legislation in the Senate — would engage youth and vets in conservation work, increase public access to public and tribal lands, and conserve and restore natural and historic resources.

The corps would be open to “any state or territory of the United States or on any tribal land … to any public organization, nonprofit organization or tribal agency responsible for the stewardship of land and water … that is public, tribal or private and has a direct or recognized public benefit.”

The bills, HR2987 and S1403, tout the proposed corps as a cost-saving measure that gives participants skills and education that could help ensure future employment. The bills also recognize the growing interest in the natural resources field and aim to “develop the next generation of outdoor stewards, entrepreneurs, recreationists and sportsmen and sportswomen.”

This is not the first time the 1993 law has seen proposed updates. The current incarnation carries no talk of funding and has not yet received a Congressional Budget Office score. However, a similar update proposed in 2013 was found to have no impact on the federal budget.

“CBO estimates that implementing the bill would have no impact on the federal budget over the 2014-2018 period,” the CBO wrote in 2013. “Enacting the bill would not affect direct spending or revenues.”

In fact, the CBO found that federal agencies such as the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were allocated $12 million for the existing Corps. That’s just 0.0003 percent of the federal budget, and some of the NPS’s share of funding “is derived from recreation fees that the agency is able to use without further appropriation action.”

The bulk of that comes from the NPS, but the Bureau of Land Management, FWS and Forestry Service — all of which manage federal lands — all have enormous backlogs of routine maintenance that need to be cleared. New York has developed a similar situation with the addition of tens of thousands of acres of land with no corresponding increase in DEC staffing.

New York currently has a similar program called the Excelsior Conservation Corps, which provides a small stipend in addition to food and housing for the summer. Participants do trail work and gain certifications such as chainsaw operation and wilderness first aid. The Excelsior Corps is administered through the Student Conservation Association and does work within the Adirondack and Catskill parks, as well as other places around the state.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican who represents northern New York, said through a spokesman that she is in favor of the idea but is still looking at the legislation.

“Congresswoman Stefanik is reviewing this legislation with her colleagues and stakeholders across the district,” Stefanik spokesman Tom Flanagin wrote in an email. “She is a supporter of public lands, both state and federal. She also believes in the benefits of public service and thinks provisions streamlining the process for using private donations to complete park reconstruction activities is a positive step.”

Two Arizona Republicans introduced the federal bills: Rep. Martha McSally in the House and Sen. John McCain in the Senate. It has been approved by multiple committees but has not yet come up for a vote.