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New service corps program would provide Native Hawaiian youth with job opportunities in conservation

The current Kīlauea Visitor Center under construction during the Great Depression.
National Park Service
The current Kīlauea Visitor Center under construction during the Great Depression.

The federal government is moving forward on a Conservation Corps-like program geared toward employing youth from Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities.

The Indian Youth Service Corps program would provide Indigenous youth with education, employment, and training opportunities through conservation projects on public lands.

The U.S. Interior Department recently released draft guidelines for the program. It's modeled, in part, on the success of similar youth initiatives pioneered by George McDonald, Youth Programs Manager for the National Park Service.

"What we’re trying to do is create opportunities both through a service corps model where you can work as a team on projects — such as trail restoration or historic preservation projects — in addition to developing marketable vocational skills. You can develop a 'Hey, I never thought about doing this,'" McDonald said.

A crew of Civilian Conservation Corps boys at what is now Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
National Park Service
Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park Archives
A crew of Civilian Conservation Corps boys at what is now Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

The program would provide employment and apprenticeship opportunities to Indigenous youth ages 16 to 30, as well as paid research internships in the conservation field. Apprenticeships would include construction, plumbing, and electrical work.

Conservation projects run the gamut from watershed restoration to erosion control, farming to invasive species removal. McDonald says the federal agencies would provide the land, and partnering organizations would oversee the participants.

"This is not another big government program. This is a public-private partnership. So typically we are partnering with nonprofit organizations to develop non-federal positions and activities. So they’re doing work on federal lands for the benefit of everyone," he told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

McDonald says this program comes at a time when communities nationwide are working toward climate adaptation and resilience. He hopes this will ensure Indigenous youth are put on a pathway to good-paying jobs working to tackle the climate crisis.

"A program like this especially for Hawaiʻi, where you’ve had some adverse impacts from climate events – this is a way to build resiliency and defense against those adverse climate events. And it also shows potentially how we can train a new generation of workers in these emergent areas that are going to be the new economy moving forward," he said.

The next step, he says, is the Interior Department’s consultation with Native American Tribes, Alaska Native corporations, and the Native Hawaiian community, which are set to begin later this month.

The Indian Youth Service Corps was created through a bill that expanded the Public Lands Corps Act in 2019. The Interior Department was tasked with coming up with the guidelines on how it will be implemented.

Congress did not appropriate direct funding for the program. The Interior Department said federal agencies are encouraged to redirect existing funding to support the service corps.

Reporter Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi shared more about the Indian Youth Service Corps on The Conversationon Nov. 3, 2021.

HPR's Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi - Nov. 3, 2021
The Conversation

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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