Work for Mother Earth

Young people find direction through state environmental program

HABITAT HELPERS<br>Members of Chico’s California Conservation Corps crew tackle soil erosion along Highway 70 in Oroville.

Members of Chico’s California Conservation Corps crew tackle soil erosion along Highway 70 in Oroville.

Photo by Katie Booth

More on the Corps: Learn about the California Conservation Corps at

April Grossberger sat sipping tea at Upper Crust Bakery, her blue eyes glancing casually around the café as she recited memories of years ago when she was a much different person—a self-described high-school, honor-roll drop-out with little to nothing on the horizon.

But that all changed when she discovered a program that would “fundamentally mold her life.” The California Conservation Corps, says Grossberger, now 43 and a Paradise planning commissioner, gave direction to her then-16-year-old lost self.

A few weeks ago, Grossberger was in an uproar over Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget cuts that threatened the existence of the small program, which boasts 1,200 core members and a staff of 250 dispersed at 21 centers throughout the state.

And she is just one of many people whose lives have been shaped by the program, which, fortunately, got at least a year’s reprieve earlier this month. Yet, its dissolution isn’t completely out of the question.

“It would be real easy for the CCC as a department to just cease to exist,” said Keith Welch, a program coordinator and 28-year member.

The conservation service program was created in 1976 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown to bring “youth and the environment together to benefit both.”

In Chico, 55 members provide all sorts of services to the community. On any given day, up to four crews work on different projects. They rehabilitate trails, rip up Scotch broom and other invasive species, plant trees, work with fish habitats, do cleanup at various sites including Oroville Dam, and collect Christmas trees for recycling, to name a few projects.

“We’re making the Earth a better place for the people that live here,” said the 56-year-old Welch.

Driving out recently to a site in Oroville, where corps members were reseeding eroded soil along Highway 70, he told stories of past projects. Every few moments he would have some comment about the scenery flying by and how the CCC had shaped its existence.

Last summer, CCC members assisted emergency personnel with the effort during and after the disastrous spate of wildland fires. They worked 149 straight days, re-supplying fire crews with gear, inspecting hoses, providing ice, water, lunches and other basics.

Of course, one might wonder why anyone would want to work for a program that openly refers to itself as a place of “hard work, low pay, miserable conditions… and more.” It’s the “more” part that Welch said is most appealing.

Two years ago, for example, at Año Nuevo State Park south of Half Moon Bay, members stood a mere 15 feet away from an area where elephant seals nearly the size of Volkswagen Beetles were beached by the thousands.

They watched waves lap at the creatures’ flippers, listening to their guttural cries as males looked to mate, and females gave birth and nursed their young on the cool Pacific shoreline. All the while, killer whales circled off shore, waiting for their meals to re-enter the water.

CORPS CHIEFS <br />Program coordinator Keith Welch and crew leader Sindi Ingersoll oversee a recent CCC project to re-seed embankments along Highway 70.

Photo by Katie Booth

During the trip, corps members rebuilt hiking trails by ripping up invasive species and constructing stairs. It was an amazing adventure for many young people.

“Some kids have never seen the ocean, and now they are walking the Golden Gate Bridge,” said Welch, who is planning a project at Alcatraz.

The CCC hires people between the ages of 18 and 25, many of whom are considered “at risk” or without direction. But the program is run as a no-nonsense business.

Roll call every weekday begins promptly at 7 a.m., and members are expected to show up dressed in the designated uniform—which includes boots, gloves and hard hats.

A workday lasts until 3:30 p.m., or longer if the member is enrolled in the organization’s school. Members are required to attend the CCC charter school if they don’t have a high school diploma, and graduates are required to partake in a minimum of three hours of education each week. A weekly journal and volunteer work around the community are also required.

“If you’re here just for money, you’re in the wrong place,” Welch said. “It’s way too hard.”

The pay, by the way, is minimum wage.

But members of the corps “fall in love with it,” said Laramie Griffith, a chief disciplinarian and crew leader who has been a member for nine years.

“Every day they come to work, they know they are making an investment for their future,” he said.

This often means advancement into other positions. The corps gives members an opportunity to work in other state programs, such as Caltrans, Cal Fire and the Department of Water Resources.

Bryce Baker, a 22-year-old corps member, admitted the money isn’t great and the projects can be miserable. On the plus side, he said a gym membership is unnecessary.

“I’m very appreciative of this job,” he said.

It isn’t easy for everyone to adjust to the program. Oftentimes, it means giving up a life that many young people in Chico are accustomed to: parties, late nights, bars and the type of freedom associated with youth culture. Members must adhere to a strict no-drug policy, and Welch said the program won’t tolerate participants showing up in the morning wearing sunglasses and reeking of a brewery.

“It’s real funny to listen to the answering machine in the morning,” Welch said, laughing and imitating a fake cough and sore throat.

Welch chuckled about how passersby sometimes confuse workers, in their blinding orange-and-yellow vests, with convicts. That mistake is indicative of the fact that the public largely is unaware of the corps.

“[CCC] is one of the best-kept secrets in the state,” he said.