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Testimony of Craig Obey, Senior Vice President

Testimony of Craig Obey, Senior Vice President
National Parks Conservation Association

RE: S. 1442, the Public Lands Service Corps Act

Before the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests

October 29. 2009

Mr. Chairman, and members of the subcommittee, I am Craig Obey, senior vice president for Government Affairs of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).  The nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, founded in 1919, serves as the leading citizen voice of the American people on behalf of our national parks.  It is a privilege to express, on behalf of our 320,000 members, our strong support for S. 1442, the Public Lands Service Corps Act of 2009.

I want to begin by first thanking Chairman Bingaman for introducing this important bipartisan legislation. S. 1442 seeks to benefit our national parks and other public lands by unleashing the spirit and energy of committed Americans who, working with their government and non-profit organizations, can help our nation capitalize on the potential for our national parks to produce significant civic benefits, stimulate local economies, educate Americans about our shared heritage, and protect our national treasures for the use and enjoyment of our children and grandchildren. 

The Act builds upon the Public Land Corps Act of 1993 by facilitating valuable new service-learning opportunities, enhancing mechanisms to help restore the nation’s natural, cultural, archaeological, recreational, and scenic resources, providing for the training of a new generation of public land managers and enthusiasts, and by promoting the value of community and national service.  S. 1442 complements the GIVE Act and Serve America Act, passed earlier this year by Congress and signed into law by President Obama, which includes a Clean Energy Corps that will work in partnership with the Public Lands Service Corps.

NPCA has called for the creation of a new National Parks Service Corps in order to foster additional national and community service in our national parks and help ready the national parks for another century of service to our nation and the world.  S. 1442 responds to and expands this vision to include all Interior and National Forest-managed lands, and areas under the jurisdiction of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.  The legislation rounds out the expansion of national and community service under the GIVE and Serve America Acts with a robust commitment to service that would help the National Park Service to address the needs of our national treasures and would foster stronger connections between national parks, visitors, and our national community. 

Enhanced Service Opportunities Help Address Critical Economic and Social Needs

These are challenging times for our National Park System and our country.  This subcommittee is well aware that an annual operating shortfall, estimated at nearly $700 million, and a maintenance backlog of approximately $9 billion, continue to undermine the ability of national park managers to protect the natural and cultural resources in their charge.  We have begun to make some progress in the last couple years, but there remains much more to do.  Furthermore, as our troubled economy staggers, unemployment rates are continuing to rise. 

In September, nationwide unemployment reached 9.8 percent, with youth unemployment at 21%.  Unemployment rates for African-American youth hover around 39%, with rates for Hispanic and Latino youth at about 25%--both up 7 points from February 2008.  Unemployment rates for college graduates are increasing significantly, as they are with Americans over age 55.  National service cannot cure these problems.  However, the tight job market, coupled with the president’s call for people to serve, is already creating tremendous demand for meaningful service opportunities, and S. 1442 can provide such opportunities in a manner that helps address continuing, significant needs on our public lands.  Such levels of unemployment remind us of the days of the Great Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to marry two destabilized resources – young men out of work and school and diminished natural resources on our public lands and in agriculture. 

S. 1442 would also create a grant program to support an Indian Youth Service Corps that would work on projects deemed to be a priority by Tribal leaders in majority Indian communities. American Indian youth have a higher predisposition to drop out of AmeriCorps style programs thus failing to gain the full training, experiences, and benefits that graduates receive. An Indian Youth Service Corps would provide American Indian youth with the same chance to serve, learn, and succeed, but do so within a more familiar and supportive cultural context.

In tough economic times, our nation has mobilized millions of people to conserve and protect its most vital resources, producing lasting benefits for society and providing individuals with opportunities and new skills.  The Public Lands Service Corps can do this and more, by employing people from the most vulnerable sectors of our economy in jobs that would enhance their future employability, invigorating them with an enhanced sense of civic pride, and supporting President Obama’s call for people to serve.

American Public Supports Service in Our National Parks, Public Lands

The American people are ready for this kind of commitment.  Americans strongly support our national parks, and want to play an active role in their protection.  In fact, an extensive poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates and McLaughlin & Associates, which NPCA commissioned in 2008 and re-confirmed after the economic downturn, found that more than four in five voters believe that it is important for the federal government to protect and support national parks and national historic places.  That poll also found significant concern about the failure of funding of our national parks to keep up with what’s needed, the shortage of needed staff at parks and historic sites, and the need to be sure parks could serve school groups.  Finally, it showed that more than 1 out of every 3 Americans are motivated to roll up their sleeves and get involved—a tremendous finding for a poll of this type, and one that shows the continuing affection of our society for our national treasures.

NPCA has called for the addition of at least 10,000 new, full-time equivalent service positions to be devoted to work in our national parks within the next few years, through an expansion of the Public Land Service Corps and through a cooperative agreement between the Department of the Interior and the Corporation for National and Community Service.  S. 1442 broadens this vision to also include other public lands, and we support that breadth so as to provide a broader geographic distribution of service opportunities and to help address needs and opportunities on all public lands. 

Service in Public Lands Improves Individual Lives, Communities, National Heritage

NPCA believes that service legislation relating to our national parks should focus on five basic principles: (1) addressing resource protection and fiscal needs in the parks; (2) enhancing multi-generational service opportunities; (3) building strong community partnerships; (4) developing the next generation of National Park Service and Federal land management agency leadership; and (5) a strong emphasis on cultural, historic, and civic impacts. S. 1442 takes important steps to address each of these priorities, and we have several modest suggestions to make it even stronger.

With the addition of significantly more service employment opportunities in national parks, along with supervisory capacity for the National Park Service, we can make genuine headway on a variety of maintenance and conservation-related projects.  For example, service and volunteerism are ideally suited to projects designed to eradicate many invasive species, replant native vegetation, and control erosion.  The human power brought to bear under the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, when CCC participants planted over 3 billion trees and built over 97,000 miles of roads in national parks and on public lands throughout the nation, provides a compelling example.  Service Corps members can rehabilitate campgrounds and deteriorating structures throughout the National Park System, renovate and help maintain historic sites, and help conduct natural and cultural resource management, science and research projects.  In addition, the Act provides an important focus on marine resources and climate change.

S. 1442 expands the potential duration of service corps participation to up to two years. By lengthening the term of service the Public Lands Service Corps maximizes the ability of the National Park Service, and other Federal land management agencies, to make a significant investment in training and reap the benefits that come from fielding a highly motivated, knowledgeable workforce. In addition, trained service corps participants can help leverage additional volunteerism by helping Federal land management personnel coordinate the activities of traditional volunteers.  Both the GIVE Act and its Senate counterpart, the Serve America Act, were designed to foster long-term, non-episodic service work, and S. 1442 falls squarely in line with those efforts.

The benefits of extended terms of service will also have a positive impact on corps members. The longer individuals serve, the more highly trained they may become.  Service corps participants will receive training, mentoring, and undergo on-the-job experiences that are generally not afforded to short-term or seasonal volunteers. They will, as a result, become a more effective and efficient workforce, and gain valuable knowledge, skills, and abilities that will enhance future employability.

Most of the service providing organizations, including the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and the Corps Network, have excellent track records in recruiting, managing, training, and fielding service workers for long-term, often residential service details, and they are familiar with the conservation ethic and management policies and practices of the Federal land management agencies with whom they partner. Long experience has taught these organizations the value of creating sustainable, scalable programs that can be ramped up or pared down as need be, without generating a costly new layer of bureaucracy. These organizations are battle-tested and ready to go.

It is hard to overemphasize the effect service can have on the lives of those who undertake it, not to mention the people and resources who directly benefit from it.  The youth of today are in danger of becoming the most disconnected generation from nature in our history as a nation.  They are not benefiting from the magic of national parks and other natural areas that comes from experiencing them first-hand.  There are many reasons for this: over-scheduling of activities, economics, the decline in the time families have to travel, lack of outside play, and more.  But when young people are given an opportunity to work in a park, they develop a very deep sense of ownership and connection to that place, to other national parks, and to the natural world, as well as experience many other benefits. 

Nearly 170,000 people volunteer to work for the Park Service each year. The hours these individuals give and the contributions they make are of an invaluable service to our national parks, and yield tremendous pride and connectedness to our parks and to our country. Yet, when parks lack sufficient funding, they often find themselves without the staff to recruit, train, and manage volunteers. Leveraging additional volunteer support and engagement is exactly the kind of utility that Public Lands Service Corps members, once trained, could bring to the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and NOAA.  Nonetheless, capitalizing on such leveraging opportunities will require that parks and other public lands have funding and support personnel sufficient to foster and manage additional Corps member engagement.

One way to augment this capacity, and an opportunity for enhancing S. 1442, relates to so-called “experienced Americans.”  S. 1442 attempts to get at this through a new mentorship authorization, which we strongly support.  Encouraging older Americans like Volunteers in Parks, military retirees and veterans to help train service corps members and lead crews will tap the know-how of many thousands of able individuals who have much to contribute.  However, we believe the mentorship provision could prove even more valuable if it is slightly broadened.  By further tapping into the knowledge and abilities of older Americans, S. 1442 can significantly enhance the capacity of national parks and other public lands to harness the power of service, and the training younger participants receive.  Attached at the end of my testimony is a suggested amendment that can help achieve this.

AARP recently commissioned a report, entitled More to Give, which details the tremendous untapped potential of older Americans for service.  An extensive survey of 44-79 year olds, whom the survey dubbed “experienced Americans”, found that “55 percent believe they will leave the world in worse condition than they inherited it, while only 20 percent believe they are leaving the world in better condition.” It also found that those most engaged in volunteer work feel more optimistic about the future.  The survey also found that financial wherewithal can be an important barrier to some older Americans serving as volunteers.

As is the case with youth, stipends can enable older Americans to serve.  In addition, according to the survey, “more than half of all Experienced Americans (51 percent), including 55 percent of Baby Boomers, said that education awards they can earn and give to a child in exchange for significant levels of volunteer service would have a big or moderate impact on their participation in volunteer activities.” Such incentives were particularly appealing to Hispanics and African-Americans.

As a consequence, the GIVE and Serve America Acts authorized a transferable education award for older Americans who participate in 1-year “Encore Fellowships” to carry out projects in areas of national need.  Fellowships go to individuals 55 and older who engage in full- or part-time service in the nonprofit sector or government, and are designed to capitalize on the additional skills set and experience that participants have to offer.  NPCA believes that the Public Lands Service Corps Act should encourage greater participation among older Americans, including eligibility for Encore Fellowships or some other means of making transferable education awards available to them, which they can use themselves or transfer to a grandchild.

The existing law already provides for AmeriCorps education awards in approved Public Land Corps positions.  The addition of an Encore-like provision would ensure that the Public Lands Service Corps tracks the opportunities that are being made available in other national volunteer programs.  Importantly, the More to Give survey showed “volunteer senior ranger” to be among the most popular volunteer activities for Experienced Americans.  When asked what kind of service they would like to do, millions of Experienced Americans chose serving in our national parks.

The Public Lands Service Corps Act clearly contemplates valuable service learning opportunities—an emphasis NPCA strongly supports.  Nonetheless, we would also like to see this role further emphasized.  Providing for greater participation of experienced Americans, together with the creative deployment of younger participants, creates additional opportunity to enhance service learning capacity and opportunities in national parks.  For example, the service corps should be expected to foster the greater use of service-learning projects linked to classroom learning in history, biology and civics. 

While the authorization contemplates a preference for service learning activities, it should be made clear that such efforts are a central purpose of the service corps, in addition to its important resource protection and restoration mandates.  In addition, the law can provide for greater use of service corps participants in serving the public.  While NPCA agrees that individuals without sufficient training should not be providing interpretation that should be provided by experts, it is important to provide a reasonable measure of flexibility in appropriate circumstances.
 
NPCA also believes that the bill’s well-intended restrictions on how service corps participants can engage in interpretation-related activities go too far.  We agree that interpretive programs should be conducted by trained professionals, and we support the bill’s reference to properly supervised corps members providing orientation and information services, and playing other appropriate interpretive roles.  Something that is not apparent from the language of the bill, however, is the degree to which service corps members would be authorized to reach out to schools and afterschool and youth-serving community-based organizations, provided they are properly supervised.  Several modest amendments related to interpretation opportunities are also included at the end of my testimony.

Clearly, there is no substitute for trained Park Service personnel. However, the service corps can do more to augment that capacity.  Some older members of the corps may very well have training that could be capitalized upon, rather than artificially restricted.  In addition, by expanding the breadth of participation for older Americans in this area, S. 1442 could further enhance capacity and service.  In addition, we suggest that the bill be amended to encourage the use of appropriately trained service corps members for multilingual services to visitors and outreach to diverse communities.
 
Among the most important elements of the Public Lands Service Corps for the National Park Service is its placement and training provisions.  First, as the organization that worked to initiate business planning within the national parks in the late 1990s, we are very pleased to see the consulting intern provision, which placement of graduate students to continue that program, which is now run through a partnership between the National Park Service and the Student Conservation Association. Well-trained consulting interns can provide useful assistance in areas beyond business planning as well, given the increasing demand for highly technical work in a variety of fields within the National Park Service. 

Second, the Park Service needs to ensure that retiring personnel are replaced with individuals from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, in order for the parks to adequately reflect the true face of America.  The Act provides an important means to diversify the ranks of the National Park Service by recruiting and training individuals from a variety of backgrounds. The Act requires the National Park Service and other federal agencies to augment the training corps participants receive from nonprofit partners with appropriate training in resource stewardship, health & safety, ethics for public service, teamwork and leadership, and interpersonal communications.  Corps members would also receive instruction about the agency’s core values, history, and standards for natural and cultural resource preservation.  NPCA wholeheartedly supports these training provisions, as well as providing noncompetitive hiring status for up to two years after completion of service for qualified candidates. We do suggest, however, that the bill be clarified to ensure the contemplated training requirement, in fact, augments rather than replaces the other high quality training participants receive. 
 
Finally, we are pleased that S. 1442 increases the prominence of service work related to historic and cultural resources. NPCA strongly believes that national service in our national parks should be sufficiently broad to encompass the tremendous civic, historical, and scientific resources and learning opportunities that our national parks have to offer.   S. 1442 makes it clear that projects related to history and culture should have a prominent role in service corps efforts, including historical and cultural research, museum curatorial work, oral history projects and other cultural and historic preservation activities.  In light of the significant backlog of archival work in the National Park System, we also suggest adding “archival work” to the list of referenced activities.  In addition, we suggest that the bill be modified to refer to the “heritage” mission of the National Park Service, in addition to the “public lands” mission.

Mr. Chairman, the end of my written testimony includes several specific recommendations related to the issues I have raised, for the benefit of the committee.  NPCA again wishes to thank you for introducing this important legislation, and to offer our assistance as the bill moves through the legislative process.  Thank you once again for the opportunity to submit testimony in support of the Public Lands Service Corps Act of 2009.  
 
Specific Recommendations

  • Purpose Section: Section 202(b)--strike “land management agencies” at the end of paragraph (5) and insert “agencies responsible for management of the Nation’s natural, cultural, historic, archaeological, recreational, and scenic resources;”
    • Rationale: The agencies in question are not mere land management agencies.  Their missions are much broader, and in some cases are actually marine, not land, in nature.  This language more accurately describes the missions of the agencies involved. 
  • Purpose Section: Section 202(b): amend the new sixth sentence to read “promote public understanding and appreciate of the individual missions of natural and cultural resources conservation work of the Federal agencies through training opportunities, community service and outreach, and other appropriate means; and”
    • Rationale: This language better explains the mechanisms through which the Act will promote such understanding; public understanding should reflect the complex missions of many agencies in question.
  • Section 204(e)(1)(E): include “cultural and historic sites” rather than only historic sites
  • Interpretation: Section 204(e)(3)—revise the Interpretation provision in S. 1442 to read:
      • o “(3) INTERPRETATION.—The Secretary may assign Corps participants to provide interpretation or education services for the public under the appropriate direction and supervision of agency personnel, including—
        “(A) providing orientation and information services to visitors, including services for non-English speaking visitors and visitors who use American Sign Language;
        “(B) assisting agency personnel in the delivery of interpretive or educational programs, including outdoor learning and classroom learning;
        “(C) presenting programs on Federal lands or at schools, after-school programs, and youth-serving community programs that relate the personal experience of the Corps participant for the purpose of promoting public awareness of the Corps, its role in public land management agencies, and its availability to potential participants; and
        “(D) creating nonpersonal interpretive products, such as Web site content, Junior Ranger program books, printed handouts, and audiovisual programs.”.
    • Rationale: The language in S. 1442 is too restrictive to leverage the full measure of appropriate assistance Corps members can provide in interpretation, including assistance with multilingual services, and community outreach.  This amendment continues to ensure appropriate supervision of Corps members while allowing for more creative engagement of their talents. 

Mentors: Add the following amendments regarding experienced Americans:

  • Sec 202(b)--add Purpose: capitalize on the ability of older, experienced Americans to engage as mentors and otherwise use their talents to strengthen agency stewardship capacity on public lands;
  • Section 204(b): Separate into two paragraphs.  The existing paragraph (b) “Participants” becomes (b)(1).

    Add new paragraph (b)2: “(2) Notwithstanding the age limitations of (1) above, the Secretary may authorize participation in the corps by participants in an encore service program under section 101 of Public Law 111-13 (42 USC 12501, et seq), using such criteria as the Secretary may develop. 

            Alternative: simply change the age criteria to read “16 and above”.
     
  • Sec 205(f) Mentors:  after “agency volunteer programs, “ insert, “encore service programs,”.  Alternative: “other appropriate federally funded service or volunteer programs” In addition, the list of activities engaged in by mentors should be expanded to include “volunteer coordination” in addition to training, mentoring, crew-leading services. 

    Rationale: Together these provision would authorize, but not require, the use and participation of Encore participants or other experienced Americans to augment capacity to train, mentor, and leverage greater assistance by Service Corps participants.  This tool should be at the Secretary’s disposal.  Serve America included a 10% set-aside for Encore Service Programs (something we do not propose here), which are defined as programs carried out by an eligible entity that:  (A) involve a significant number of participants age 55 or older in the program; and (B) take advantage of the skills and experience that such participants offer in the design and implementation of the program.  The Encore authorization enacted in Serve America is specifically designed to provide Americans 55+ with opportunities to serve in areas of high need in return for a stipend and education award.  Education awards may be transferred to children, grandchildren, etc, and participants may serve full- or part-time.  It also provides for Encore Fellowships, which place Americans 55+ in one-year management or leadership positions in nonprofit and government sector areas where there is ongoing high demand.  The fellowships help facilitate mid-career shifts, and could help NPS and other agencies meet needs for highly trained individuals in certain areas.  One example of an option for using Encore participants or comparable experienced Americans would be for parks to tap them as volunteer coordinators in the parks (and other public lands).  That would better enable parks to capitalize on the provisions in Serve America under the Clean Energy Corps that authorize activities such as renewing, rehabilitating or otherwise carrying out projects in national parks. Training would be another area of potential.   But this amendment would leave the decision for how/whether to use Encore participants completely to the Secretary’s discretion. 

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