For nineteen years, the Utah Conservation Corps has provided opportunities for college students and young adult AmeriCorps members to make a positive impact in Utah’s parks and on public lands. The service-oriented program has become so popular that it attracts individuals from across the United States each year.
Enter: pandemic. Suddenly the altruistic acts of these individuals becomes more challenging, as they move from one location to another across state lines and serve in parks near communities throughout Utah. Overcoming these challenges is critical both for the safety of the individuals AND for the communities they will visit.
Sean Damitz is co-founder of UCC and serves as the organization’s director, housed with Utah State University’s Center for Community Engagement.
“By this time of year, we normally have over one hundred AmeriCorps members serving in teams across the state of Utah,” explains Damitz. “Normally, a team of five corps members will travel to a work site to work on trails, invasive species management, or some other conservation project, as requested by our partner organizations throughout the state.”
These partners range from federal parks and lands, to state agencies, and sometimes include nonprofit partners working to conserve Utah’s natural resources.
When social restrictions began, UCC joined with other conservation organizations around the nation to begin crafting modifications that would allow service to continue, despite the ever-changing landscape for safe group travel and gatherings. UCC developed a COVID-19 Task Force to establish operations and protocols that would focus on ensuring opportunities for young conservation leaders in light of the dynamic environs of safe social interactions during the pandemic.
“For this year, we know our work will look a little different from previous years,” explained Damitz. “We will have fewer crew members, and those members will be largely confined to their own crews for the entire season.”
Nicole Kreiser has been with UCC for eight years, starting out as an AmeriCorps crew member in 2012, before advancing to crew leader. She now serves as UCC’s AmeriCorps program coordinator.
“Our crews work remotely, but still have to travel on occasion to get food and supplies, or to relocate to a new work site,” she explained. “So, in addition to managing for our own safety, we have to find ways to work and travel safely within every community we serve.”
This means taking into account local and county guidance and restrictions.
In addition to the internal operations challenges, federal and state partners are still making determinations as to how they will operate in the coming weeks and months. While much of this remains in flux, UCC AmeriCorps crew members began arriving at sites across Utah last week for two weeks of quarantine and training. “Even our training looks a lot different this year,” explained Kreiser. “Our interactions at our camping and field sites, our training in classrooms and outdoors—we’ve had to change everything. If a crew moves to a new location, the vehicles have to be sanitized both before and after each trip,” she added.
“We are making a careful and cautious start for the season,” Damitz added. “We hope to be able to ramp things up, depending on safety protocols. We want the people in the areas that we serve to know that the safety of those people in the communities is as important to us as our own safety.”
Nationally, the successful operation of many conservation-service programs for 2020 has been threatened as parks and public lands have been closed. Many programs across the United States were forced to furlough employees.
“This is a great advantage to having our program aligned with Utah State University,” explains Damitz. “Having a solid backbone infrastructure has allowed us to concentrate on adapting safely to our new challenges. Because of this we are actively putting “boots on the ground” in Utah’s parks and public lands.”
UCC has posted their operational protocols publicly on the UCC web site at UCC.usu.edu.
“Our path forward will be informed by best practices from across the nation, but also from community guidance and input,” added Damitz.
About the Utah Conservation Corps
The UCC was formed in 2001 with a mission to develop the conservation leaders of tomorrow. It is based out of Utah State University’s Center for Community Engagement, and has offices and locations throughout Utah. Since 2001, more than 1,400 UCC AmeriCorps members have served over one million hours creating or maintaining 3,442 miles of trail and 425 miles of fence, restoring 41,653 acres of public land and reaching 332,250 students with environmental education.