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Conservation Corps target of budget ax
By Chris Julin
Minnesota Public Radio
January 24, 2002
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The Civilian Conservation Corps put thousands of people to work during the Great Depression. And 20 years ago, the state of Minnesota started a similar program to put young people to work in the outdoors. But this might be the last year for the Minnesota Conservation Corps. The state's Department of Natural Resources has to cut millions of dollars from its budget. The DNR recommends eliminating the Conservation Corps. DNR officials say they like the MCC, but something has to go.

MCC crew
Erik Olson, MCC crew supervisor, and Joy Wiitala, crew member, spent one week mapping a ski and snowmobile trails, building log shelters and cutting trees. The DNR proposes to eliminate the MCC because of the state's budget shortfall.
(MPR Photo/Chris Julin)

The MCC has two different programs. One program gives high school kids a summer job working outside. The other program puts hundreds of young adults to work for an entire year. They fan out across the state in crews of three or four. MCC crews cut trees. They teach environmental classes to kids. They fight forest fires. They build and maintain trails.

On this day, one MCC crew is mapping a ski trail in Duluth. Earlier in the day, they mapped a snowmobile trail. This week they've built a log shelter on one trail, and cut trees along another trail.

Some of the crew members are just out of college. Some are taking a year off from school. The Conservation Corps pays them about $6 per hour, but they also get a break on their tuition or student loans.

Angela Coffee has been on this Duluth crew for about five months. Before that, she spent half a year on a crew in Voyageur's National Park. She has a bachelor's degree in English. She plans to go to graduate school next year, but she's also getting certified to fight wild fires.

"I'd like to pursue being a professor in English, and then, hopefully, once I get my fire training I'd like to keep working fires in the summer. That'd be a good life, I think," says Coffee.

Another member of the Duluth crew is Joy Wiitala. She joined the Minnesota Conservation Corps because she wanted to take a year away from college to to decide on a major. Now she's settled on sociology, and she's going back to school in the fall.

Wiitala loves her MCC job. She says it's satisfying to work with her hands and "get something done." She was on the Voyageur's Park crew with Angela Coffee. They cut 26 miles of trail and built boardwalks over wet spots.

MCC crew
Erik Olson and Joy Wiitala are loading up a sled they use to haul their gear into the woods. They were heading to the North Shore to cut some trees along a trail.
(MPR Photo/Chris Julin)

"It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life," says Wiitala. "I just laugh, because I know it's going to be something that I plan on taking my grandkids to, like, 'Grandma did this.' It gives you sort of a sense of pride."

Each MCC crew has a supervisor, and those supervisors will be out of work when the program folds. Erik Olson supervizes the Duluth crew. He's still hoping the Legislature will set aside money for the MCC, even though the Department of Natural Resources has recommended cutting the program.

"If they'd let me, I'd work all my life. Supervisors can work for up to four years so, if I can, I'll work for those four years," says Olson.

"This was done reluctantly," says Dennis Stauffer, DNR spokesman. "This is not a reflection on the program or the people in the progam."

Stauffer says the DNR doesn't want to make any cuts, but it has to. So DNR officials recommended cuts Stauffer says will do the least damage. They chose the MCC.

"This is a program that was in many respects, always conceived as a jobs program. Yes, they do some stuff that creates value in terms of protecting the natural resources, but a jobs program is obviously not at the core of the DNR's mission," Stauffer says.

The recommendation to cut the Minnesota Conservation Corps is now at the state Legislature. Last year, the Legislature talked about cutting back the MCC, but ended up restoring the program's full budget. But last year, the state had a budget surplus.

More Information
  • Minnesota Conservation Corps