Pennsylvania’s parks are a state treasure. They’re free. They’re accessible. They’re islands of tranquility: places to play frisbee with your kids on a weekend afternoon, to launch your kayak, hike the trails, or reserve a pavilion, make smores, and listen to the rain. If, like me and my friends, you’ve enjoyed the many hiking trails, camping sites, and recreational facilities that our parks offer across the state, you may have wondered how our public lands manage to be so well maintained, without admission fees and with only limited maintenance staff. One of the answers is: The PA Outdoor Corps.
The Corps got its start when Tom Wolf, in his first term as governor, reached out to Pennsylvania’s agencies, asking them to find ways to engage the state’s youth in the workforce. The program that resulted serves young people between the ages of 15 to 25. All participants perform paid service work in our parks and forests, earning over $12 an hour, but members of the older group are able to operate machinery, with the proper training, and are taught more sophisticated technical skills that can prepare them for future work in the trades. Since the program started in 2016, 772 people have participated and, of those, 521 have earned professional certification in a variety of areas.
When describing the program, Mike Piaskowski, who has managed the Outdoor Corps for DCNR since 2018, can barely contain his enthusiasm. Its benefits are almost too numerous to count. The work performed by the participants, work that extends far beyond this brief enumeration, includes constructing bridges, removing brush, managing invasive species, creating tent pads, constructing firewood shelters, refurbishing cabin docks, administering herbicide treatments, preserving historic CCC-era structures, rehabilitating hiking and horse trails, and the planting of trees.
Since the start of the program, 659 miles of trails have been improved, 7,824 structure repairs have been completed, and 15,212 native plantings have been established. Without this important work, the wilderness would encroach in ways that would seriously diminish the public’s enjoyment and participation.
These are the most visible benefits of the program. The social benefits, though less visible, can’t be underestimated. From both the leadership and participant points of view, the experience, according to Piaskowski, is “incredible.” DCNR staff and crew leaders are thoroughly invested in the growth of their young workers. In on-site interactions, they focus on teaching practical as well as interpersonal skills. “We talk about careers. We advocate for professional development. And along the way, we give webinars and educational seminars on a number of environmental topics,” says Piaskowski.
Piaskowski is proud of the high retention rate and that many alums from the program go on to take jobs in the field of conservation or even become members of the program’s staff. One of the goals of the program is to engage underserved citizens by reaching out to urban, suburban and rural communities in order to develop the next generation of conservation leaders in Pennsylvania. “We are predominantly a white, male enclave,” he says. “Representation matters, and we’ll need everyone on board as we go forward to confront the world’s environmental problems.”
The program’s focus on serving others, as well as its efforts at support and advocacy, have paid off. Though parity has not yet been achieved, the program’s success at attracting women and people of color is impressive and is gaining momentum. The ability of the program to take young people from diverse backgrounds and turn them into working teams could serve as a model for social interaction in today’s divided world.
This year’s program, though its focus on personal interaction has been restricted by Covid, will begin in March. To bring the program to your area, you need to be aware that the Corps works only on public land, defined as land open to the public in perpetuity. The Corps will work in partnership with a unit of government (township, borough, county, authority, etc.) or a non-profit organization. Contact Mike Piaskowski at: email@example.com. Read more about the program on the PA Wilds Are Calling blog: https://pawilds.com/.
Dr. Karen Elias is retired after teaching college for over 40 years and now lives in Lock Haven where she is working on using her writing in the service of activism. This is excerpted from a March 19 article on the Pennsylvania Wilds are Calling blog.