Supporting Veterans through Prairie Conservation: The Veterans Conservation Corps and CNLM Internship Program
Enacted through state legislation in 2005, the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Conservation Corps (VCC) aims to educate veterans about conservation through hands-on work experience and give program graduates a competitive advantage in the environmental job field. At the heart of the VCC program is the concept of eco-therapy, the belief that spending time in nature makes people healthier. The VCC provides statewide conservation opportunities that allow veterans to spend time outdoors as one of the means of assisting with transition from active duty while providing them with more pathways for education and employment.
Through a collaborative partnership with the Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM), the VCC-CNLM internship program was created in 2014 for veterans to learn land management and conservation skills while working on lands on and around Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). JBLM is the third-largest Army installation in the United States and contains some of the last remaining prairie habitat in the Pacific Northwest, which supports three federally threatened and endangered species: Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, streaked horned lark, and the Mazama pocket gopher. To protect the sustainable prairie lands that support both military training and rare wildlife, CNLM’s South Sound Prairies Program has worked in partnership with the Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) Program and JBLM to preserve over 2,000 acres to date. While protecting the prairie acres successfully alleviates some restrictions on JBLM’s capacity to test, train and operate, prairie lands require active and continuing management to remain suitable for the species that rely on them. Therefore, CNLM’s work with JBLM to manage, restore, and sustain these prairie lands and associated imperiled species made collaborating with the VCC a natural extension of CNLM’s prairie land stewardship goals.
The VCC-CNLM internship focuses on providing specialized learning opportunities, hands-on training, and developing skills that will support veterans after the internship has been completed. Together with WDVA, CNLM developed a training curriculum for VCC participants tailored to the unique prairie habitat of the area. The internship offers three certifications: an Incident Qualification Card (known as aRed Card, necessary to conduct prescribed fires), a commercial operator’s license for herbicide, and a first aid/CPR card. Veterans attend workshops on plant identification, scientific methods, plant propagation, resume building, networking, and interviewing. WDVA staff also coordinate training for interns regarding post- traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and suicide prevention as well as a general veterans' cultural competency training for CNLM staff. Taken together, CNLM staff and VCC leaders are able to deliver a professionally and personally impactful program to veteran interns. Danny Miller, a 2015 VCC intern and US Army veteran stated that, “I’m a 28 year old combat Veteran…Once out of the Army I had few skill sets that translated to the civilian world… Violet Prairie (Seed Farm) with the VCC and CNLM is a truly special place and eco-therapy truly works… I have far fewer sleepless nights. I hope any Vets that would like to go through this internship will be able to.”
The internship gives veterans the opportunity to customize their learning experience according to their interests and career goals. “I learned a great deal about working under protocols with care and precision,” said Jason Keyes, 2016 VCC intern and US Army veteran. “I have confirmed my own passion for the natural world. On paper, I have learned whole skill sets that I have placed on my resume for future employment.” Interns with VCC have the opportunity to participate in optional trainings and in volunteer events with other conservation organizations in order to pick up additional skill sets. Optional trainings include bird banding, introduction to GIS, environmental communications, wildlife surveying and territory mapping, riparian restoration and others. As former VCC intern and current VCC Intern Coordinator Kim Pham states, “this is an unprecedented internship that provides veterans the freedom to pursue training opportunities that focus on individual achievement. The program meets the veterans where they are at and empowers them to take the direction that they choose is right for them, all the while being supported by the comprehensive resources of the VCC network of partners and providers."
Twenty-five veterans have taken advantage of the VCC-CNLM program since its inception in 2014, and the program has continued to increase opportunities and experiences available to interns. As word of the opportunity continues to spread to veterans across Puget Sound, CNLM looks forward to working with many more veterans in the future. Through the VCC, veterans not only receive job training that utilizes skillsets gained as active duty Service Members, but the collaboration with CNLM provides a new opportunity for veterans to support national defense. In this new capacity, veterans help to restore and strengthen the prairie habitat outside of JBLM, thereby increasing the base’s flexibility to use its land for required training and helping to sustain JBLM’s military mission.
Deston Dennison, a 2014 VCC intern, summed up his experience in this way: "Working with CNLM has given me opportunities to expand my knowledge of ecosystems management and prairie ecology through applications that aren’t explored in a classroom. Hands on training in prescribed burning and botany, ecological surveys, and field work all inform the credential set and networks I will need to develop my career path. The flexibility and support of CNLM staff in regards to my own personal inquiries makes this an ideal hub from which to expand my practice and understanding of ecological design and management. I'm very fortunate and grateful to have had this opportunity.”
This article was also published in the Department of Defense’s REPI Program newsletter-Fall of 2016 edition.