Unprecedented times call for bold measures, and it’s clear that Pennsylvania needs a new vision for economic renewal and job creation to recover swiftly from the coronavirus pandemic.
We should summon solutions that match the historic magnitude of these challenges. One sufficient first step toward that goal: establishing a new Conservation and Economic Recovery Corps.
The need for such a program is clear. Nearly one million Pennsylvanians are out of work amid an economic crisis that touches all demographics but is disproportionately affecting people of color, women, and young people.
In addition, faced with lockdowns and social restrictions, Pennsylvanians of all ages have turned to biking, kayaking, hiking, birding, fishing, hunting, boating, and camping for exercise, recreation, and relief from stress. As a result, visitation to our state parks has increased by more than 50%.
This historic level of participation in the commonwealth’s natural beauty highlights the fragility of our public lands. Our state parks and forests face a billion-dollar maintenance and infrastructure backlog. The state watershed plan calls for $324 million of investment annually to improve water quality in our rivers and streams. Many of our natural spaces and streams are beset by acid mine drainage, abandoned oil and gas wells, and brownfields.
We’ve faced similar challenges before.
Shortly after his inauguration in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression to create jobs and “conserve our natural resources, create future national wealth and prove of moral and spiritual value not only to those of you who are taking part, but to the rest of the country as well.” Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” ultimately employed 3.4 million men who planted three billion trees, created more than 700 state and local parks, and constructed trails across the country.
While the country is certainly different today than it was in 1933, the benefits of a youth conservation corps remain the same.
Investments in restoration, recreation, and resilience create good-paying jobs more quickly than many other alternatives — 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars invested. That’s because most of the funds go toward labor, both skilled and unskilled, rather than materials.
The benefits of a modern-day conservation corps would extend to all 67 Pennsylvania counties.
Shovel-ready projects — planting tree buffers, installing green stormwater infrastructure, maintaining and creating trails, and renovating park building, among others — exist in all 121 state parks. Abandoned coal mine lands exist in 43 counties, requiring cleanup and reclamation.
Nearly 1,000 municipalities have projects that would improve water quality by addressing stormwater runoff. Every county has impaired streams, flood control needs, and main street beautification projects in need of a workforce.
Policymakers don’t need to look far for existing programs that can be built upon into a statewide effort, including the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Outdoor Corps, AmeriCorps, and PowerCorpsPHL. More than just an opportunity for service, a modern-day state conservation corps should pay a family-sustaining wage, provide health insurance and sick leave, and offer training and certification opportunities for workers.
The creation of a state Conservation and Economic Recovery Corps is just one of several recommendations made in a new PennFuture report — “A Green Stimulus and Recovery Platform for Pennsylvania” — that provides solutions to create jobs, reduce pollution, and advance sustainable industries.
The pandemic and economic crises require swift, bold action. We can put Pennsylvanians to work restoring the commonwealth’s natural treasures, green spaces, and recreational opportunities as soon as it is safe.
A modern-day conservation corps will not just restart the economy, it will increase our strength and resilience as a state.
Collin O’Mara is the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. Jacquelyn Bonomo is the president and CEO of PennFuture.