S. 1403

21st Century Conservation Service Corps Act of 2017

STATEMENT OF ROBERT VOGEL, ACTING DEPUTY DIRECTOR, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SENATE ENERGY & NATURAL RESOURCES SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, CONCERNING S. 1403, TO AMEND THE PUBLIC LAND CORPS ACT OF 1993 TO ESTABLISH THE 21ST CENTURY CONSERVATION SERVICE CORPS TO PLACE YOUTH AND VETERANS IN NATIONAL SERVICE POSITIONS TO CONSERVE, RESTORE, AND ENHANCE THE GREAT OUTDOORS OF THE UNITED STATES, AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES.

July 19, 2017 
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Chairman Daines, Ranking Member Hirono, and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to present the Department of the Interior’s views on S. 1403, to amend the Public Lands Corps Act of 1993 to establish the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps to place youth and veterans in national service positions to conserve, restore, and enhance the great outdoors of the United States, and for other purposes.

The Department recommends that Congress defer action on S. 1403 until we have an opportunity to review all of the Department's youth programs and determine the most cost-effective strategies for engaging children, youth, and young adults in our nation's great outdoors. This legislation would officially rename the Public Lands Corps as the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, expand the participation of veterans of the U.S armed forces in the corps, increase the number of Federal agencies that are able to use the program, and authorize a program specifically for Indian youth to carry out projects on tribal lands. 

The Department’s land management bureaus, along with the U.S. Forest Service, have established successful public-private partnership programs using the authority of the Public Lands Service Corps. Informally, the agencies identify these arrangements as 21st Century Service Corps or “21CSC” partnerships, so we believe that converting the Public Lands Corps Act authorities to 21st Century Service Corps authorities in statute is appropriate. In addition, a new identity for the program seems appropriate in light of the bill’s highlighting of veterans as an eligible group of participants and the extension of the program to multiple Federal agencies beyond the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture. 

In the Department of the Interior, using the authority of the Public Lands Corps Act, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), have collaborated with youth conservation corps on 21CSC projects all across the country. These projects, which are undertaken through the use of cooperative agreements, have ranged from trail maintenance to watershed restoration, historic preservation to forest regeneration, and invasive species removal to front-line services for visitors. The projects have decreased the land management agencies’ maintenance backlogs and helped to fill critical staffing gaps. They have also given many young people, including youth from underserved communities and veterans, opportunities to gain in-demand skills for success in the 21st century workplace. Through these partnerships, the bureaus have been able to generate an interest among young people in pursuing careers in public land management, which is an increasingly important aspect of the program as growing numbers of Federal employees become eligible for retirement.

A few specific examples of public-private partnerships help illustrate the success of the 21CSC partnerships: 

In Maryland, the NPS Historic Preservation Training Center and a partner organization, Conservation Legacy recently piloted the Traditional Trades Youth Initiative to provide a structured, experiential training opportunity to young adults in traditional construction trades (carpentry, masonry, and woodcrafting). Participants work closely alongside experienced craftspeople, serving as assistants or apprentice level trades workers to learn preservation trades skills while completing projects within parks, such as restoring historic windows and replacing a shingle roof on a barn at Gettysburg National Military Park.

In Oregon and California, the Klamath Bird Observatory (KBO) built on a long-standing partnership with the BLM and FWS to expand its internship program and improve outreach to underserved communities, including Native American and Hispanic youth. The combination of KBO’s established long-term monitoring program and an intensive bird banding training curriculum foster the integration of youth engagement and professional training. The internships have provided opportunities for training and practical experience in bird monitoring techniques; learning through a well-rounded curriculum in field biology; and attaining bird bander certification through the North American Banding Council.

In Arizona, the Conservation Legacy organization worked with the BIA to lead an eight-person Native American youth crew in completion of natural resource conservation projects on the Navajo Nation. The crew consisted of local area high school students and two adult crew leaders. During the four-week program the crew restored and stabilized Hubble Wash, maintained trails, and repaired and constructed wildlife fencing. 

In New Mexico, the Talking Talons Youth Leadership, in partnership with the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), the Bureau of Reclamation, the New Mexico State Land Office, Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation District, the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program, Amigos Bravos, Friends of the Valle de Oro, and Friends of the Sandia Mountains provided approximately 560 hours of paid employment for urban and minority youth in conservation work that benefited the public lands and the mission of the Valle de Oro NWR, BOR, and the State of New Mexico. In addition to receiving in-depth education and training in diverse aspects of environmental restoration, monitoring, and stewardship, crew members conducted surface and groundwater quality monitoring and removed invasive vegetation on 80 acres on the refuge and adjacent Federal and state lands. 

And, in Maine, the Friends of Acadia hired young people to work on projects with the NPS in Acadia National Park, including engaging the public in raptor viewing opportunities and working on a trail crew mediating trail issues. Many of the youth work experiences occured in accessible, highly visited areas, such as Sieur de Monts Springs.

S. 1403 would increase the number of Federal departments and agencies authorized to partner with conservation organizations to support and carry out 21CSC projects. In addition to the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, the authorities could be used by the Departments of Transportation, Labor, Energy, Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Commerce; the Environmental Protection Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and any other agencies as designated by the President. The bill would give participating agencies flexibility to support 21CSC projects in a manner consistent with each agency’s mission and resources, while seeking to minimize the duplication of a specific project by another agency. Authorizing these entities to carry out project directly with other agencies would relieve the administrative burden on the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, which currently serve as sponsoring entities for 21CSC projects carried out by Federal entities outside of those two departments. The bill would also require participating agencies to report to Congress to ensure 21CSC activities are carried out in a cost-effective manner. 

This bill delineates the categories of projects that could be conducted through a cooperative agreement between an agency and a partner. While the projects are focused on the full range of activities that constitute conservation, restoration and management of public lands and waters, the list includes work that would be conducted primarily inside, such as service in a science, policy, or program internship, which has a clear benefit for natural, cultural, or historic resources or treasures, including interpretation and education services. This will make clear to agencies that manage almost any kind of work related to conservation or restoration that they have the ability to use this program, even if those agencies are not considered land management agencies.

S. 1403 also establishes a 21CSC specifically for Indian youth to participate in projects on tribal lands. This program would be administered through a cooperative agreement with a tribal agency or a 21CSC organization. Guidelines for this program would be issued by the Secretary of the Interior within 18 months of enactment of the bill.

This bill maintains two changes to the Public Lands Corps Act that were passed by Congress in December 2016 as part of the NPS Centennial Act: one providing an upper age limit of 30 for participants (raised from 25), and the other providing a two-year period of eligibility for non-competitive Federal hiring for participants (increased from a period of 120 days) who complete the requirements of the program. These provisions both increase the pool of potential participants and the opportunities for participants who have developed the skills the agencies need to move into permanent Federal positions.

In addition to these changes, the lower end of the age limit for participation would be reduced from 16 to 15. 21CSC organizations would be encouraged to select veterans of age 35 or younger for projects to focus on training young people, but veterans would not have any age limit for participation. 

S. 1403 would reduce the cost-share requirement for 21CSC projects from 25 percent to 10 percent, while resource assistants participating through 21CSC organizations would still require a 25 percent cost-share. The Department supports the cost-share requirement reduction for 21CSC projects, which would enable a greater range of organizations such as smaller, community-based organizations that draw from low-income and rural populations to participate in the 21CSC. 

If the committee acts on S. 1403, we recommend an amendment to Section 12. This section retains existing law that allows land management agencies to use direct hire authority to hire former resource assistants who have completed "a rigorous undergraduate or graduate summer internship" and extends that authority to other agencies, we suggest amending this section. As currently written, Section 12 would eliminate the reference to the National Park Service Business Plan Internship as an example of the kind of internship that meets the definition of "rigorous." We think that keeping that phrase in law would maintain the Business Plan Internship as a benchmark for the types of internships that are sufficiently rigorous for interns to be hired by agencies without going through the competitive hiring process. Without maintaining that benchmark, agencies will have a more difficult time determining what internships meet the definition of "rigorous." We would be pleased to provide language to amend this section. Finally, as the Department reviews this legislation more thoroughly and considers it in the context of other programs aimed at youth engagement, we may want to suggest additional amendments.

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

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