Susan Montoya Bryan
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Friday rolled out guidelines for a new youth service program meant to create job opportunities for Native Americans while boosting their cultural connections to nature through conservation projects on tribal and public land.
The Indian Youth Service Corps is the latest addition to the Biden administration's plans for building a 21st century version of the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps. The mission includes everything from clearing brush to reduce wildfire threats and restore forests to preserving historic sites, helping with archaeological research and building trails.
Haaland talked about a childhood spent hiking to the top of high desert mesas, wading through ice-cold streams and learning about the world's interconnectedness from her grandparents while walking through corn fields at Laguna Pueblo in west-central New Mexico.
“I want everyone to have that profound connection to the great outdoors that I was gifted, and we can help more people access nature no matter where they're from or what their background,” she said during a call with reporters. “We will help lift up the next generation of stewards for this Earth.”
Haaland described Native Americans as original stewards of the land, saying they have learned over many generations how to sustain communities and that it's time for Indigenous youth to have a seat at the table.
The Interior Department is funneling a combined $3.3 million this year to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation to establish the Indian Youth Service Corps.
The U.S. Forest Service is investing up to $5 million as part of its partnership with the corps, and the National Park Foundation is committing $1 million.
Future funding will depend on agency budgets and private philanthropy.
Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, said enthusiasm is increasing for programs that give young people paying jobs and training for professions related to public lands and natural resource management.
“It checks a lot of really important boxes for donors, and I think the future is very bright for private funding to support these efforts,” he said.
The foundation is funding more than 10 conservation and preservation projects from Maine to New Mexico that involve tribal youth crews. Some of the work is aimed at protecting cultural practices, languages and traditional ecological knowledge used for land management.
One of the first Indian Youth Service Corps projects will be in southern Arizona. Six citizens of the Tohono O’odham Nation will work as a crew on the Coronado National Forest.
Other work around the Southwest will include native seed collection as land managers work with scientists to reforest areas charred by wildfire.
Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández of New Mexico said the new corps will ultimately lead to more traditional knowledge being incorporated into future conservation efforts as participants move into leadership roles as adults.
“With this program, knowledge is going to flow both ways,” she said.