The nonprofit Conservation Corps New Mexico gives young adults 18 to 25 the chance to improve public lands across southern New Mexico and West Texas.
Through partnerships with AmeriCorps, Conservation Corps members contribute to conservation efforts while gaining job skills and earning education award money. Program coordinator Ben Correll said before he got involved with conservation work, he didn’t think much about public lands.
“I thought of them as a constant, something that was just there, it’s just land. So, when I started doing this it really made me invested in my public lands and like understanding what they are, understanding the history of public lands,” Correll said.
Volunteers work on projects in national parks, monuments and wildlife reserves. That includes helping with restoration projects like maintaining trails and removing brush and invasive species. Volunteers who complete a term of service are eligible for an AmeriCorps Education Award grant based on the number of hours they complete.
Corps member Damaris Lewis is from Taos and moved to Las Cruces for college. Lewis said after she graduated from NMSU, she joined the Conservation Corps to do something outdoors to help both people and the environment.
“I was actually working at a car dealership for a while and there was no growth for myself within that, so I was like I want to get outside, how do I get outside but actually feel like I’m actually you know doing something, making a slight difference in the world and I found out about the conservation corps and I looked further into it and it’s been perfect. It’s been really awesome since I joined,” Lewis said.
Lewis said she’s returning as the assistant crew leader next season. While she said she wants to continue working in conservation and make it a career, she’s also considering going back to school.
“This is giving me awesome experience to even go back to school and it’s kind of cutting out that time where I would have to do internships where right now I’m already kind of getting that education and that experience that I would need to kind of give me a little boost up,” Lewis said.
Correll said local and national Conservation Corps members have also been part of response teams for natural disasters this season.
“For instance, one of our crews this season was deployed on disaster relief efforts with the AmeriCorps disaster response team in Florida and that really just really ties into a way to give back, either to your local environment and your local communities or the nation as a whole,” Correll said.
The Center for Western Priorities recently released a report that shows people make more than 290 million visits to public lands in Western states every year. Nearly 10 million of those visits are to New Mexico where consumers spend about $10 billion on the outdoor industry.
Despite their popularity, President Trump has been working to dismantle protections for public lands. In December, Trump drastically reduced two national monuments in Utah by more than 2 million acres in the largest public lands reduction in American history. As part of the recently passed Omnibus bill, Congress budgeted more than $35 billion for federal environmental and public lands agencies for fiscal year 2018, up $3 billion from last year.
Conservation Corps members say they look forward to continuing their work in the field next season. Correll said national parks and monuments offer something for everyone and it’s important to visit them in-person.
“I’ve tried to take pictures of some of these places and it does not do them justice. For instance, you know just nearby we have White Sands National Monument and you can see the beautiful white sand, but when you go out there in person and you go hike the Alkali Flat trail, beautiful four-mile loop, it’s like it feels otherworldly and it’s just like 'This is in my backyard. This is something that I have a right and I have access to.'” Correll said. “You know the Organ Range right up there right outside our town, there’s a ton of hiking up there, there’s climbing and the view from the top of some of those peaks- I’ve watched the sunset from up there, I’ve watched the lights of Las Cruces come on, like it’s an incredible, incredible spot.”
Lewis said the opportunity to work on public lands has been a rewarding experience for her.
“It’s been great. I mean I’ve hurt myself a few times but you know what, it’s really awesome. I wouldn’t take it back for anything and I’m really excited to see what the future has in store for me,” Lewis said.
Preserving a future for public lands is something Conservation Corps members are working toward one trip at a time.