Boots on the ground: Washington Conservation Corps through the years

For Ecology’s 50th anniversary, we’re looking back at the programs that have shaped the state of the environment. An important addition to Ecology’s environmental efforts, the Washington Conservation Corps (WCC), serves the state through “boots on the ground,” hands-on environmental service.
Chances are, you have walked along a trail, seen a newly planted forest, or strolled through a park where members of the Washington Conservation Corps have served. These projects are conducted by young adults and military veterans seeking an opportunity for hands-on experience, career skills, and training. Projects range from restoring stream banks where salmon spawn, to conducting eelgrass surveys in Puget Sound, and even responding to state and national disasters, including wildfires, storms, and floods. But, the program originally started much smaller.
An AmeriCorps member reaches for a rock while digging new tread on a trail in the forest.

AmeriCorps member Christian Akers builds new trail at Tamanowas Rock Sanctuary in Chimacum. Photo by Owen French.

WCC’s early years

Washington’s Legislature created the WCC in 1983 to help conserve and protect the environment. One of the primary aims of the legislation was to provide opportunities for young adults facing job loss from downturns in the logging and fishing industries. Starting with just three field crews, members quickly fanned across the state planting hundreds of thousands of native trees and shrubs and completing recreation enhancement projects during the first decade of the program’s existence.
In 1994, WCC joined forces with the national AmeriCorps program, offering members the opportunity to earn scholarships through the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award. Becoming an AmeriCorps program also increased funding, allowing WCC to diversify field projects and increase training opportunities to enrich members’ service experience.

Partnerships expand service experience

Initially, WCC operated under several state agencies, including the state departments of Ecology, Fish and Wildlife, and Natural Resources, and the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission.
In 2011, state lawmakers folded all existing WCC activities into a consolidated program within Ecology. A new program, the Puget SoundCorps, was created. WCC grew to 350 member positions that year, including 14 seasonal crews dedicated to priority projects to help restore and protect Puget Sound.
A person wearing a helmet with a face guard looks at tires and woody debris while standing on a beach.

A Veteran Conservation Corps member supports a marine debris project in 2015. Photo by WCC.

Also launching in 2011, the Veteran Conservation Corps program created three crews specially made up of veterans. They engaged in a wide range of projects including removing marine debris, constructing boardwalks, conducting forage fish and habitat surveys, and completing an array of restoration projects.
In 2014, the number of crews was reduced to our current size of 52 field crews, each consisting of five members and one supervisor, and 16 individual placement members serving in internship positions. We still maintain our three programs: the Puget SoundCorps, Veteran Conservation Corps, and our original corps.
Through the years, WCC has partnered with more than 100 nonprofit organizations, local governments, and state and federal agencies. These strong collaborations strengthen WCC’s community engagement and environmental efforts while providing a breadth of field experiences for our members. Our partnerships play a vital role in providing networking and enrichment opportunities, on-site trainings and education, and career advice.
A person points to a map, showing a group of children a location, while standing in a grassy field.

WCC AmeriCorps member Caroline Villanova served with Mountains to Sound Greenway in as part of the Individual Placement Program in 2018.

“Our partners’ investments in our members make it clear that they believe in our program model. We are fortunate to have strong partnerships, including several that were formed decades ago,” said WCC Program Director Bridget Talebi.

Assisting communities after disasters

After natural disasters occur, such as floods, wildfires, landslides, hurricanes, or tornadoes, our members are among the first to respond. Crews are dispatched to address community needs and have been deployed locally and across the country, including U.S. territories. The first large-scale national disaster response for WCC took place in 2003 after severe winter storms damaged communities in Missouri. Crews were also dispatched to Louisiana in 2005 to help with the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 
In 2016, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) formed AmeriCorps Disaster Response Teams (A-DRT), consolidating AmeriCorps programs responding to disasters — including WCC. This structure allowed A-DRT leadership to standardize trainings and protocols, and more effectively serve vulnerable communities recovering from disasters.
WCC is a nationally recognized leader within AmeriCorps’ A-DRT, with five disaster response specialists among our field supervisor ranks. They design and lead trainings and fill leadership roles in the Incident Command
System during federal mission assignments.
Over the past few years, WCC members have served on the front lines of the massive wildfires in Eastern Washington in 2015 and 2017, helped survivors in Texas after Hurricane Harvey inundated thousands of homes with up to 60 inches of rainfall, and served in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
A person kneels on concrete to conduct a roof repair in a sunny climate.

An AmeriCorps member conducts a roof repair in Puerto Rico. Photo by Sarah Hamilton Photography.

Increasing equity in service 

WCC strives to recruit and enroll members that reflect the communities we serve. However, while WCC is an AmeriCorps program in which currently most managers are white, we are committed to becoming an anti-racist service program where everyone can thrive.”During the past six years, we have made it a priority to learn about and incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion topics into WCC trainings and program structure.
In 2018, we set aside funding to support a Women’s Conference, renamed Gender Equity Conference in 2019. These events are critical for building important relationships as well as sharing experiences for those working in the outdoor industry, a traditionally male-dominated field.
Looking ahead, WCC’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team plans to continue sharing resources about anti-racism and equity, creating space for diversity and inclusion-related conversations, and supporting actions in our strategic plan that reduce barriers to service.
A group of female-appearing people gather for a group photo on a deck outdoors.

The first ever Women of WCC Conference took place in North Bend in 2018. The conference was renamed Gender Equity Conference in 2019. Photo by WCC.

Service as stepping stones for careers

Corps members have incorporated their WCC experience and trainings into a variety of successful career paths, securing influential positions across the state and country. You can find our alumni in leadership positions at many state agencies in Washington, including the Governor’s Office, Department of Natural Resources, and throughout the regions of Department of Ecology.
Within our partner organizations, there are some incredible examples of our WCC helping create the next generation of environmental leaders. For example, at King Conservation District, 12% of their staff previously served with WCC. At Snohomish Conservation District and North Olympic Salmon Coalition, 21% of their staff boast AmeriCorps experience.
A group of six firefighters gather for a photo in an outdoor field, wearing dark green pants and dark blue uniforms.

Six WCC alum working as firefighters in the Methow region gather for a photo in 2018. Photo contributed by Katz Kiendl.

Challenging and compelling trails ahead

The 2019-2020 service year brought some difficult farewells, both expected and unexpected. WCC continues to grieve the loss of former coordinator Nick Saling, who disappeared after a personal boating trip near Lummi Island in October 2019. His passion for the environment and mentorship lives on in many ways, including the Nick Saling Mentorship Program, pairing new field supervisors with peers for mentorship and cross training.
Another farewell came in the form of retirement: Crew Coordinator Roland McGill hung up his WCC boots after 27 years of state service coordinating field crews and managing our disaster response program.
“It has been a highlight of my career working with so many amazing people to help establish the A-DRT program and see it grow into such a professional, dedicated, energetic and effective resource today,” Roland said. “Our role assisting underserved communities and populations is more important than ever.” And he leaves WCC in good hands, saying “I cannot imagine a better team of people to lead WCC into the future.”
Four individual headshots lined up side by side; from left to right.

L to R: Former coordinators Nick Saling and Roland McGill, current coordinators Vanessa Young and Joe Hall. We continue to honor and remember Nick Saling who passed away in fall 2019. 

These transitions have brought two new leaders into WCC’s coordinator team, right in time to help navigate the coronavirus pandemic. In April, we welcomed our newest coordinators — Joe Hall, most recently hailing from Alaska, and Vanessa Young, hailing from Bellingham, Wash.

Join WCC today!

WCC is now recruiting 11-month AmeriCorps members on field crews and individual placement positions across the state! WCC offers valuable, entry-level environmental positions to young adults and those with military service.
Our AmeriCorps members complete environmental projects in nearly every part of the state while receiving formal and informal learning experiences during their terms. In exchange, they earn a living allowance and AmeriCorps scholarship to use for pursuing education or paying off existing student loans, among other benefits.
WCC is committed to providing a high-quality AmeriCorps service experience where everyone’s unique leadership abilities can shine. 
Learn more about WCC and apply today on our website.
A group of AmeriCorps members stand in a diagonal row on a slope, while harnessed with proper personal protective gear.

Two field crews team up to conduct restoration activities in Tacoma. Photo contributed by Steven Quick.