California Conservation Corps Celebrates 15 Years Of Hard Work, Low Pay
MALAKOFF DIGGINS STATE HISTORICAL PARK, Calif. (AP) _ Critics once mocked the California Conservation Corps as ″hippies in the woods.″ Its creator, then-Gov. Jerry Brown, boasted it crossed a kibbutz with the Marine Corps.
The program that counts nearly 50,000 alumni celebrates its 15th anniversary today. And faithful to its motto - ″Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions ... and more″ - the CCC is marking the occasion the hard way: by working.
The CCC, modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s to foster conservation projects and youth development, is hosting reunions this week for alumni as well as special work projects for current members.
California’s version served as a model for similar programs in 25 states. More than 35 countries sought the CCC’s advice on setting up their own corps.
Participants sign up for yearlong stints; most drop out before that. But those who stick it out call the experience enriching.
″I probably learned more in three years in the corps than the 21 years I’ve been alive,″ said Keith Yukl.
When he joined, Yukl was a high school dropout who hung out on the streets of Hollywood and did drugs. He quickly changed his attitude.
For three years Yukl planted trees, cleared streams, built trails and performed maintenance work. When he left the corps this spring, it was to take a $9.75-an-hour job building trails for the Inyo National Forest in Southern California.
The CCC accepts any California resident aged 18 to 23, provided they’re not on parole or probation.
The average stay is 5 1/2 months. It takes 3,600 hires a year to maintain a corps of 1,900 people, Director Bud Sheble said.
A quarter of the recruits are fired for breaking rules that ban, among other things, alcohol or drugs on duty or on state property, Sheble said.
Another 50 percent leave before the year is up to go on to something better, such as a good job or school, he said.
Pay starts at minimum wage, $4.25 an hour, with a 10 percent raise after four months. Corps members earn about $360 a month after deductions for health insurance and for room and board if they live in corps’ barracks, said Mark Rathswohl, a CCC project coordinator in Auburn.
Those who fulfill their commitment receive a $400 bonus and an $800 college scholarship.
It’s a rough year.
The day starts with calisthenics at dawn. Then there’s work, which may be anything from fighting wildfires to conducting energy audits.
The crew now stationed at Malakoff Diggins Park, site of a 19th-century gold mining town, has installed plumbing, repaired trails, built storage sheds and fences and put new roofs on historic buildings.
When the day’s work ends, school begins. High school dropouts are required to take classes and usually work toward their general equivalency diploma; high school graduates may take community college courses.
All members maintain a journal of their activities to hone their writing skills.
Since 1976, the men and women working for the CCC have planted more than 18 million trees, cleared one thousand miles of streams, built or repaired more than 3,200 miles of trails, and conducted energy audits on 12 million square feet of state buildings.
They also have spent more than 4 million hours responding to wildfires, floods, earthquakes and other emergencies.
B.T. Collins headed the CCC from 1979 to 1981, when he became Brown’s chief of staff. A former Green Beret who lost an arm and a leg in the Vietnam War, Collins coined the ″hard work, low pay ...″ slogan and is credited with motivating corps members to make something of themselves.
Collins says the program kept many youngsters out of prison.
″There’s thousands of kids that will testify to that,″ he said.