Ecology program roots are spreading across the globe

(Credit: Earth Corps)

There’s a strong sense of camaraderie that often comes with volunteer work; even more so when it involves pulling blackberry bushes out of cold mud. Earth Corps is a community-based ecological restoration group that trains 45 young adults every year to lead crews of volunteers in pulling invasive species (like blackberries) and planting native ones around Seattle, Washington.

Corps members come from across the United States and around the globe for a year of training in fieldwork, ecology and leadership, and often leave with a job at one of Earth Corps’ many partner organizations.

Due to visa requirements, Earth Corps is limited in selecting international applicants with either a college degree in an environmental field or five years relevant work experience, but this means the majority of international Earth Corps alumni continue to work in land management and restoration after they finish. Several have gone on to train Peace Corps volunteers who work on environmental issues in their home countries.

Of the 300 international alumni, 24 are clustered around Lake Baikal in Russia, where they lead volunteer work crews on the Great Baikal Trail. An ambitious effort to save the world’s largest freshwater lake from mining and resource extraction by turning it into a destination for eco-tourists, the plan is to eventually encircle the lake with a 1,300 mile trail.

Earth Corps occasionally plans international trips for work parties to help keep the connections it has with its partner organizations strong. These organizations, ranging from Young Cameroonians for Forest and Environment to the Mongolian Nature and Environment Consortium, are where many of the international applicants for Earth Corps training program get recruited.

Earth Corps began in 1993 as Cascadia Quest with just a three-week tree-planting program for national and international youth. Two years later, they partnered with King County to offer the yearlong young-adult training program they have today. The name was changed to Earth Corps in 1999, and through donations and fees for their environmental management services, they are now able to train up to 60 people a year who in turn lead more than 10,000 volunteers in planting nearly 45,000 native trees and shrubs. Corps members spend four days a week leading volunteers in the field, and one day a week in the classroom studying land management.

“We think that what we’re doing is applying ourselves to restoration practices on the land, but hand-in-hand what we’re trying to learn is to restore our relations with each other,” said Su Thieda, deputy director of Earth Corps, in an interview with Humanosphere.

The diverse group of young adults that Earth Corps brings together has to learn to work through issues of cross-cultural communication, differing expectations and gender issues in order to accomplish their restoration projects.

This sentiment of restoring human relationships while restoring the landscape is echoed by other ecology groups, like the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) and Land, Lives, and Peace. SER is an international network that works mostly to research and disseminate best practices for land management, but also states that “the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, sustainable resource extraction and human poverty” are best met through ecological restoration.

Land, Lives, and Peace makes the connection even more explicit, and organizes the annual Caux Dialogue on Land and Security to bring together development workers, government officials and environmental groups to talk about the links between environmental degradation, food security and conflict.

While SER and Land, Lives, and Peace work to restore that trust and the environment on a broader political level, Earth Corps and other conservation corps around the world work toward that restoration on a local level.

“Saving the planet matters to everybody,” Thieda said. “It’s something we all have in common.”

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About Author

Nikki Eller

Nikki Eller writes on environmental issues for Humanosphere, and is currently a Master of Public Health student at the University of Washington. A neuroscience major in college, she later served with the Peace Corps in Peru and worked for the UW Department of Global Health. Contact her at Nikki.humanosphere@gmail.com.