Dedicated to Service: Maryland Conservation Corps
Each year a new team of young adults from diverse backgrounds unite to work toward the common goal of improving public lands. These 17-25 year-olds make up the heart of the Maryland Conservation Corps, which is managed by the Maryland Park Service and partially funded by an AmeriCorps grant through the Governor’s Office on Service and Volunteerism. For more than 30 years, corps members have worked to maintain and improve state parks, restore the Chesapeake Bay and educate others about the importance of environmental stewardship.
Under the supervision of crew leaders and park rangers, members work in an assigned state park in teams of five to seven. There are currently seven crews around the state. During the 10-month program, they are involved in a variety of projects, including maintaining biking and hiking trails, removing invasive species, planting trees or working on park improvement projects. Occasionally, all crewmembers gather together for training or large-scale projects.
The Maryland Conservation Corps was established in 1984 as an initiative to help restore the Chesapeake Bay. That foundation remains an integral part of the program. Throughout their service term, members may find themselves working alongside department staff from the Chesapeake and Coastal Service to plant thousands of bay grasses or restore a stream. They may also have the opportunity to work with staff from the National Aquarium to lead volunteers in tree planting projects. By the end, they end up planting several thousand trees and native plants to improve riparian buffers, control erosion and help improve water quality.
One of the major projects that members have been participating in for the past five years involves proactively trying to save a keystone forest species: the hemlock tree. These magnificent giants have been seized by the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid, an insect that can kill the tree and devastate the ecosystem. In a cooperative agreement with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, crewmembers receive pesticide applicator training so they can inoculate hemlocks against the deadly bug. To date, they have treated more than 30,000 trees!
In 2016, members participated in a similar project focused on protecting ash trees. The Maryland Forest Service partnered with the corps and used a similar pesticide application technique to help save specimen ash trees from damage caused by the emerald ash borer, another destructive exotic insect. Members will continue to work on protecting ash and hemlock trees on public lands again this spring.
The Maryland Park Service has seen an incredible increase in visitation over the past decade, creating an urgent need for critical and everyday maintenance projects. Corps members play an important role in helping staff with these projects and keeping facilities tidy for visitors. They learn how to safely operate chain saws so they can clear and maintain trails, as well as basic carpentry skills in order to build new picnic tables, bulletin boards, campsites and foot bridges. They also engage in a number of habitat restoration projects in parks such as removing invasive plants, creating pollinator gardens, monitoring wildlife populations and assisting with prescribed burns.
In addition, crewmembers receive training in a variety of environmental education curricula and have the opportunity to teach environmental programs to school groups and park visitors. Many assist with programs using live animals from the popular Scales and Tales program. They also mentor teenagers who are enrolled in a summer park program similar to theirs called the Conservation Jobs Corps.
The Conservation Jobs Corps works in partnership with community youth organizers to provide service opportunities, team building and natural resource career skills.
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The Maryland Conservation Corps program is a great way for young adults to learn team-building skills while gaining hands-on experience and certifications. Current member Tyler Walker describes his experience as, “everything I hoped for and more. I’ve gotten to meet many great people with whom I most likely would never have crossed paths. Having a crew alongside you encourages you to bring out the best in each other. I’ve learned more working in the field than any college course was able to give me.”
People join the program for different reasons, be it a personal interest, passion for the outdoors or a way to gain work experience. Others join to be part of the National Service Program and earn an education award, which can be used for student loans or future tuition costs. Many graduates go on to become park rangers or managers in the environmental field. Whatever the motivating factor is for joining the Maryland Conservation Corps, most participants are inspired to serve others and make a positive contribution to the environment.
Article by Ranger Sarah Marcinak and Ranger Tina Stevens—Corps’ administrative specialist and program manager. Appears in Vol. 20, No. 2 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, spring 2017.