H.R. 2167

Public Lands Service Corps Act of 2015


JUNE 23, 2016

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the views for the Department of the Interior on H.R. 2167, a bill to amend the Public Lands Corps Act of 1993 to expand the authority of the Secretary of the Agriculture, the Secretary of Commerce, and the Secretary of the Interior to provide service opportunities for young Americans, to help restore natural, cultural, historic, archaeological, recreational, and scenic resources of the United States, to train a new generation of public land managers and enthusiasts, to promote the values of public service, and for other purposes.

The Department strongly supports H.R. 2167 which promotes environmental stewardship while providing job skill development to succeed in the 21st Century workforce.  This bill would strengthen and facilitate the use of the Public Land Corps (PLC) program, helping to fulfill the Administration’s commitment to build a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21 CSC)—a national collaborative effort encouraging young people across America to serve their community and their country.  During the last three Congresses, the Department testified in support of similar bills.  While we appreciate many of the revisions since the 111th Congress’ version that are reflected in H.R. 2167, we would like to have the opportunity to work with the committee on the amendments described in this statement and any additional issues that we identify as we continue our review of the bill.

Engaging America's Youth Through Service

While there are other federal programs that promote service, expanding the use of the Public Land Corps is particularly important because it also serves other high-priority goals.  Specifically, enactment of this legislation will help pave the way to meeting one of the goals of the President’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative – to develop a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps.  In January 2013, leaders of eight federal departments and agencies signed an agreement setting up a national council to guide implementation of the Administration’s 21CSC – a national collaborative effort to put America’s youth and returning veterans to work protecting, restoring and enhancing America’s great outdoors.  By signing the Memorandum of Understanding, the Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor, as well as the EPA Administrator, Chair of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and Assistant Secretary for the Army (Civil Works) established the National Council for the 21CSC—fully implementing the first recommendation of the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative introduced by President Obama in 2010.  The National Council works across the federal government to support the 21CSC by enhancing partnerships with existing youth corps programs that utilize PLC around the nation; stimulating existing and new public-private partnerships; and aligning the investment of current federal government resources.

Building on the legacy of President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression in the 1930s, the 21CSC will help build and train a workforce that fully represents the diversity of America while creating the next generation of environmental stewards and improving the condition of our public lands.  The 21CSC focuses on helping young people – including diverse, low-income, underserved and at-risk youth, as well as returning veterans – gain valuable training and work experience while accomplishing needed conservation and restoration work on public lands, waterways and cultural heritage sites. 

H.R. 2167 would help both the Department and our sister agencies, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce, offer expanded opportunities for our youth to engage in the care of America's Great Outdoors, consistent with efforts to fully implement the 21CSC.  It would help the Department further implement critical cost-effective conservation projects that have direct positive impacts for the agency and the public.  This legislation would also help the Department fully implement the 5-Year Plan for Pathways in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).

Background on Public Land Corps Program

The Department regards the Public Land Corps program as an important and successful example of civic engagement and conservation.  Authorized by the National and Community Service Trust Act in 1993, the program uses non-profit organizations such as the Student Conservation Association (SCA), the Hispanic Access Foundation, the Greening Youth Foundation and other service and conservation corps organizations affiliated with the Corps Network as the primary partners in administering the Public Land Corps program.  These public/private partnership efforts help to leverage Federal dollars in some cases 3 to 1.  In addition, other non-profit youth organizations such as the YMCA also participate, as do local high schools and job-training youth organizations. These youth organizations assist the National Park Service (NPS) in its efforts to attract diverse participants to the parks by recruiting youth 16-25 years of age from all socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

The National Park Service (NPS) makes extensive use of the Public Land Corps Act. This authority is used for the majority of all NPS youth work projects that utilize a non-profit youth-serving organization as a partner.  In FY 2015, 4,248 employment opportunities were created through the projects undertaken by these partner organizations.  Many of these projects were for maintenance and ecological restoration purposes.  The NPS receives a 25 percent cost match from the participating partner organizations.

In 2012, the NPS and the Greening Youth Foundation launched the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Intern Program. This program provides over 60 employment opportunities in facilities management, science, interpretation and education, and cultural resource stewardship, in all seven NPS regions. The Greening Youth Foundation, in close collaboration with the NPS, has developed a detailed, multi-layer pre-placement training for its PLC participants and park hosts.  There is also an end-of-program training workshop, which includes a career development component. 

In 2015, the NPS launched the Latino Heritage Intern Program utilizing two PLC partner organizations, Environment for the Americas and the Hispanic Access Foundation.  Also, this year the NPS is providing 45 employment opportunities in 6 NPS regions with a focus on cultural resource stewardship. 

The Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has engaged the services of non-profit youth service corps for many years under financial assistance agreements at the state and local level.  In FY 2015, the BLM supported more than 4,400 youth employees through non-profit service corps organizations. They participated in a variety of conservation service activities such as recreation and river management, historic building restoration and maintenance, inventory and monitoring of cultural resources, wilderness, rangeland, and renewable energy compliance; native seed collection and invasive species control, and visitor services, including education and interpretation. 

In Kanab, Utah, the Southern Utah University sponsored an Intergovernmental Internship Cooperative (IIC), which expanded youth conservation crews, individual internships, and camps for  Native American youth.  The IIC developed a step-by-step approach to engage, enlighten, enlist, and employ these youth from kindergarten through graduate school.  Some of the youth were hired for plant restoration projects. Others worked on developing leadership skills by encouraging qualified youth to become crew leaders or mentors to other program participants.

In Salem, Oregon, the Wilderness International Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) sponsored interns from the Clackamas County Juvenile Department to work on BLM recreation sites and invasive control projects. Student interns participated in 10-week terms covering conservation topics and career readiness. 

In Montrose, Colorado, a Forest Service YCC member supported front desk operations at the Montrose Public Lands Center for two months during the summer of 2015.  The front desk is an interagency service center that supports public lands in and around Montrose, including BLM managed lands.  The position was cost-shared by the San Juan Mountain Association and  the U.S. Forest Service Ouray Ranger District.

In Phoenix, Arizona, a partnership of the Student Conservation Association, the BLM, Arizona Call-a-Teen Youth Resources, and Phoenix College conducted the Phoenix Field School, a 16-week education and training program for young adults. Crews worked on important conservation projects in Arizona, including trail construction and repair, riparian habitat restoration, biological monitoring, and invasive plant management.  In addition to the field work and trainings, the youth also earned 12 college credits through Phoenix College by taking classes in areas related to conservation and career development.

The Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) manages 564 units of the National Wildlife Refuge System that cover over 150 million acres of land and waters, as well as over 70 National Fish Hatcheries, which would directly benefit from programs authorized under  H.R. 2167. National Wildlife Refuges and National Fish Hatcheries enjoy strong relationships with the local communities, and are involved in many community-based projects that help maintain sustainable landscapes.  The FWS's work is also supported by over 200 non-profit Friends organizations that assist in offering quality education programs, mentoring, and work experience for youth.

In 2015, the FWS employed 1246 youth employees through 94 partners that include local, State, and non-profit youth service corps.  The FWS also provided funding for a YCC program that hired 545  youth.  The FWS has working relationships with numerous colleges and universities for students interested in pursuing careers in fish and wildlife management. 

The Public Lands Service Corps Act of 2015

H.R. 2167 would make several administrative and programmatic changes to the Public Land Corps Act.  These changes would encourage broader agency use of the program, make more varied opportunities available for young men and women, and provide more support for participants during and after their service.  Appropriately, H.R. 2167 would change the program's name to Public Lands Service Corps (PLSC), reflecting the emphasis on "service" that is the hallmark of the program.  President Obama is committed to providing young people with greater opportunities and incentives to serve their community and country.  Through an enhanced Public Lands Service Corps, we would be taking a critical first step in that direction.

Key changes that the legislation would make to existing law include:                          

  • Adding the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which administers national marine sanctuaries and conservation programs geared toward engaging youth in science, service and stewardship, as an agency authorized to use the program;
  • Establishing an Indian Youth Corps so  Native American Youth can benefit from Corps programs based on Indian lands, carrying out projects that their Tribes and communities determine to be priorities;
  • Authorizing a departmental-level office at the Department of the Interior to coordinate Corps activities within all the participating bureaus;
  • Requiring each of the three relevant departments to undertake or contract for a recruiting program for the Corps;
  • Requiring a training program for Corps members and identifying specific components the training must include;
  • Identifying more specific types of projects that could be conducted under this authority;
  • Allowing participants in other volunteer programs to participate in PLSC projects;
  • Allowing agencies to make arrangements with other federal, State, or local agencies, or private organizations, to provide temporary housing for Corps members;
  • Providing explicit authority for the establishment of residential conservation centers;
  • Authorizing agencies to recruit experienced volunteers from other programs to serve as mentors to Corps members;
  • Adding "consulting intern" as a new category of service employment under the PLSC program;
  • Allowing agencies to provide living allowances, as established by the applicable Secretary, and to reimburse travel expenses; 
  • Allowing eligibility for military veterans to be capped at 35 years old;
  • Allowing the Secretary to establish a preference of enrollment to individuals who live in a certain state or region;
  • Allowing agencies to provide non-competitive Federal hiring status for Corps members for two years after completing service, rather than only 120 days, if certain terms are met; and
  • Allowing agencies to provide job and education counseling, referrals, and other appropriate services to Corps members who have completed their service. 

We believe that the Department's program would benefit from enactment of this legislation.  As noted above, most PLSC projects are designed to address maintenance and ecological restoration needs, and those types of projects would continue to be done under H.R. 2167.  However, this legislation specifies a broader range of potential projects,  which would prepare Corps members for careers in more varied occupations and industries.  Under H.R. 2167, Corps members could become involved in such varied activities as historical and cultural research, museum curatorial work, oral history projects and programs, documentary photography, public information and orientation services that promote visitor safety, and activities that support the creation of public works of art.   Corps members might assist employees in the delivery of interpretive or educational programs and create interpretive products such as website content, Junior Ranger program books, printed handouts, and audiovisual programs.

PLSC participants would also be able to work for a partner organization where the work might involve sales, office work, accounting, science, communication, education, and management, so long as the work experience is directly related to the protection and management of public lands. The NPS has a large number of partner organizations that would be potential sponsors of young people interested in the type of work they might offer.

Another important change is the addition of "consulting intern" as a new category of service employment under the PLSC program, expanding on the use of mostly college-student "resource assistants," provided for under existing law.  The consulting interns would be graduate students who would help agencies carry out management analysis activities. The NPS has successfully used business and public management graduate student interns to write business plans for parks for several years, and this addition would bring these interns under the PLC umbrella.

The Public Lands Service Corps would also offer agencies the ability to hire successful Corps members non-competitively at the end of their appointment, which would provide the agency with an influx of knowledgeable and diverse employees as well as career opportunities for those interested in the agencies' mission.  Such hiring authority is an especially valuable tool for the Department to realize its goals spelled out in the “STEM Education and Employment Pathways Strategic Plan.”  Refuges and hatcheries, for example, are uniquely qualified to connect with local communities, since the Service has so many refuges across the country that are located near smaller communities and can directly engage urban, inner city, and rural youth.  For example, partnering academic institutions are beginning to offer academic certificate programs to enhance the students' work experience and marketability for securing full-time employment in both the federal and non-profit sectors, thereby providing orientation and exposure to a broad range of career options.

An expanded Public Lands Service Corps program would provide more opportunities for thousands of young Americans to participate in public service while assisting the Department to address the critical maintenance, restoration, repair and rehabilitation needs on our public lands and gain a better understanding of the impacts of climate change on these treasured landscapes.

Recommended Changes to H.R. 2167 

As noted at the start of this statement, we appreciate the changes that have been made since the legislation was first introduced in the 111th Congress, and are reflected in H.R. 2167. However, the Administration recommends the following amendments to this bill:

  1. Cost sharing for nonprofit organizations contributing to expenses of resource assistants and consulting interns

    Under current law in the case of resource assistants, and under H.R. 2167 in the case of consulting interns, sponsoring organizations are required to cost-share 25 percent of the expenses of providing and supporting these individuals from "private sources of funding."  The Administration recommends giving agencies the ability to reduce the non-federal contribution to no less than 10 percent, only if the Secretary determines it is necessary to enable a greater range of organizations, such as smaller, community-based organizations that draw from low-income and rural populations, to participate in the PLSC program.  This would make the cost-share provisions for resource assistants and consulting interns parallel to the provisions under the bill for other PLSC participants.

  2. Definition of Eligible Service Lands

    The Administration recommends technical amendments to clarify the definition of "eligible service lands" to include non-federal lands.  An expanded definition of eligible service lands to include federal, state, local and privately-owned lands would provide additional flexibility in carrying out conservation projects on non-federal lands with willing landowners.

  3. Agreements with Partners on Training and Employing Corps Members

    The Administration recommends striking the provision in H.R. 2167 that would allow PLSC members to receive federally funded stipends and other PLSC benefits while working directly for non-federal third parties.  The need for this language is unclear, since agencies already have flexibility in how they coordinate work with cooperating associations, educational institutes, friends groups, or similar nonprofit partnership organizations.  Yet, the language could raise unanticipated concerns over accountability, liability, and conflicts of interest.  For example, this language could allow an individual to receive a federally funded stipend under a PLSC agreement, and then perform work for a different non-federal group (such as a cooperating association) that is subject to agency oversight under different agreements.  This language could blur the lines of responsibility that have been established in response to IG concerns over the management of cooperating associations and friends groups.

  4. Participants/  Length of Service

    The Administration recommends striking the provision in H.R. 2167 that would limit the terms of service of Corps participants.  This would retain the authority provided for in current law which provides for administrative flexibility in determining the appropriate length of service for Corps participants.

  5. Authorization of Appropriations

    The Administration recommends amending H.R. 2167 to eliminate the $12 million authorization ceiling for the program under existing law.  This would allow for an increased funding for the program in the future, as the three Departments increase their use of the Public Lands Service Corps.

  6. Eligibility Requirements

    The Administration recommends amending H.R. 2167 to raise the maximum participant age for enrollment of both the Corps and the Indian Youth Service Corps from 25 to no older than 35.

The Department and its bureaus, along with its sister agencies are presently working together to: establish a 21CSC; improve federal capacity for recruiting, training and managing volunteers and volunteer programs to create a new generation of citizen stewards; and improve career pathways and to review barriers to jobs in natural resource conservation and historic and cultural preservation.  The proposed amendments to the Public Lands Service Corps Act will support these efforts to fully implement the President's America's Great Outdoors initiative.

Finally, the Department of Labor also is reviewing H.R. 2167 to ensure that labor standards, including child labor protections, apply for participating youth, and will address any concerns it has directly with the Subcommittee.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony.  I would be pleased to answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.

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