Thursday, February 22, 2018

Montana Conservation Corps member Adam Kiminsky (left) strips bark from logs outside Big Horn County Historical Museum to be used in restoration for the museum’s Thomas LaForge Cabin, built in the late 1800s.Team lead Kelsey Willbur of the Montana Conservation Corps lops problematic branches from a tree outside Big Horn County Historical Museum near Hardin the afternoon of Wednesday, April 5. Museum Director Suzy Havener, who has worked with the Montana Corps in the mid-2000s, convinced the agency to help her as a service project.

Lending a helping hand

MT Conservation Corps fixes up museum grounds, promotes youth programs
A group of tents could be spotted near the old-time buildings of the Big Horn County Historical Museum grounds last Wednesday, signaling the beginning of its outdoor spring cleaning. Visitors to the Hardin museum this year will get to explore the outside area among trimmed trees, clean ditches and weeded flower gardens courtesy of Montana Conservation Corps.
Suzie Havener, director of the museum, contacted the agency to help her as a service project for community outreach. This is the Montana Corps’ first time working at the museum. 
“I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to fund a full project – we’re a nonprofit – so that was part of reaching out to them,” Havener said. “They’re helping us with our spring cleaning…we’re so happy they’re here.”
While members of the Montana Corps used loppers to remove branches from nearby trees that afternoon, senior crew leader Sarah Fields directed operations. In addition to her work at the museum, Fields said, she intends to visit local schools to promote the agency’s new Middle School Expedition Program scheduled this summer for people ages 12-14. 
“[The program involves] taking middle schoolers out with two youth crew leaders, and they get to learn ‘soft’ – or fundamental – skills like leadership, team-building and communication,” Fields said. “They also get to do a service day, and learn about conservation and trail work.”
The middle school program, Fields added, is a precursor of sorts to the Montana Corps’ High School Expedition for teens ages 14-17.
“The youth crew leaders actually take six teenagers out into Montana’s wilderness – the parks and national forests – and they take them out for a month at a time,” Fields said. “They learn about conservation, and actually do the projects and trail work.”
Delving into some specifics of the job, Fields said she has learned to place barbless wire on top of fences in heavily deer-populated areas and on the bottom of fences in pronghorn-heavy areas. This is because deer often leap over fences, while pronghorn like to crawl underneath them – a lack of barbs on the wire can protect animals from injury.
The museum grounds offered a change of pace from fixing fences and trail work, Fields said, and she looks forward to learning more about the Hardin area.
“I have family in Bozeman and just really wanted to come out here, and look for outdoor jobs,” Fields said, describing her journey to the Montana Corps. “I had no idea what [the agency] was, delved into it and fell in love. And I love Montana.”
As for Havener, she’s been well-acquainted with programs such as Montana Corps. In the mid-2000s, when she worked as a park ranger at Pompey’s Pillar in Billings, the agency was hired to finish the rocky monument’s boardwalk and hand railing.
“In the 1970s, I was actually involved in the Civilian Conservations Corps in Montana,” she continued. “All my life, I’ve followed them.” 
The CCC – which would later off-shoot into the Montana Conservation Corps – was established in March 1933 during an emergency session of congress. Former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the program to help off-set the waste of young men and land due to lack of economic opportunities stemming from the Great Depression.
Over the next nine years, three million people from varied social and racial backgrounds would work together to plant three billion trees, build 125,000 miles of road, string 89,000 miles of telephone wire and more.
Though the agency was liquidated by July 1942 at the onset of the Second World War, the federal government would sometimes find the funding to extend CCC operations in later years. 
Congress attempted to reinstate the program in 1984 as the American Conservation Corps, but former President Ronald Reagan defeated the bill by pocket veto, saying youth efforts would be better served in the private sector. Thus, individual states made their own Corps agencies with leaders provided by AmeriCorps – a federal program designed to meet public service needs in local communities.
As of February, Montana Corps faces a new challenge from President Donald Trump’s draft administration budget, which would remove funding from AmeriCorps. 
This and other cuts, Trump said, are done with the intention of increasing spending on defense and infrastructure. According to a Trump Administration press release, “To the extent these activities have value, they should be supported by the private and nonprofit sectors.”
Drawing on his own experiences in the Peace Corps – another program set to be defunded – Jim Burchfield disagreed. Writing in a Missoulian guest column, the former dean of the College of Forestry at the University of Montana stated, “through a slash and burn assault on the best elements of the federal budget, Washington’s leaders are cutting off the future.”
Each summer, Montana Corps groups maintain about 800 miles of trail, build more than 50 miles of fences, and repair and build roughly 100 structures per year. As of 2017, they’ve been in operation for 25 years.
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