By JASON JOHNSON/LAGNIAPPE MOBILE REPORTER
Some of Mobile’s most ecologically diverse areas are tucked away beyond the buffers of some of its most urban communities hidden marshlands rich with plant and animal life, in areas throughout the Three Mile Creek watershed.
In a restoration economy like the one developing locally from a steady trickle of BP oil spill money, wetland areas like these can have a financial value as well. Yet many believe there is a disconnect between that ecosystem and the residents who live only a few feet away.
Now, a multifaceted grant program is working to connect young adults from predominantly African-American neighborhoods to the ecosystem and the potential economy quietly growing in their own backyards.
“Through the Gulf [RESTORE Act], there are go- ing to be numerous jobs and career opportunities, but unfortunately many African-Americans and minorities in low-income communities just aren’t being exposed to those,” Michael Pierce, executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue Redevelopment Corporation, said. “We wanted to
get involved to show them the value of those things, which is something that’s never been done.”
When MLKARC began kicking around those ideas with staff at the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, they identified a number of unmet needs in those communities. More importantly, they potentially identified a common solution.
Young people need to be better connected to environmental assets in their own neighborhoods, they need to develop marketable employment skills and, in some cases, they just need a job. Thus, the Coastal Alabama Conservation and Resiliency Corps was born.
First of its kind
The Corps consists of 10 young adults, ages 18-25, from areas such as Prichard, Orange Grove, Theodore, Happy Hill, Down the Bay and Moffett Road. All of the members are African-American, and though their levels of outdoor experience vary, none was directly involved with any environmental work prior to joining the Corps.
In February, the group went through intensive training and since then has been doing hands-on restoration work — developing the professional and specialized skills to make them marketable to the companies that will be handling millions of dollars’ worth of restoration projects along the Gulf Coast for years to come.
“The idea was to give these kids six months of hard work and on-the-job training with some marketable skills that might position them for employment in a restora- tion economy, and since Deepwater Horizon, there is a restoration economy,” MBNEP Watershed Protection Coordinator Tom Herder said. “We’re doing management plans for 31 watersheds that have tidal influence, and all those are going to recommend projects and funding mechanisms to pay for them.”
Over the next 15 years, $725 million of BP money will be allocated to projects in Mobile and Baldwin counties through the RESTORE Act. “The iron’s hot,” Herder said, for those looking to make a career in invasive species removal, shoreline stabilization and marsh creation.
After existing as an idea for several months, the Coastal Alabama Conservation and Resiliency Corps found its funding in a $250,000 matching grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. It
was secured through a Mobile Bay National Estuary Program partnership with MLKARC and the Student Conservation Association.
The SCA, a nonprofit that aims to find the “next generation of conservationists,” contributed an additional $100,000 to the program, though it’s also managing the organizational infrastructure and the activities of the local Corps members through its two program’s leaders.
While SCA has been involved in similar programs in other regions, Pierce said Mobile’s is unique because it’s specifically
targeting “an urban environment” and “low- to median- income communities,” calling the pilot program “the first of its kind in the country.”
“It’s important young people understand there are multiple career pathways out there, not just ones we typically think about — doctor, lawyer, teacher, athlete,” Pierce said. “Those are great, but there’s others that sometimes don’t immediately come to mind — foresters, engineers, the people who study and protect our environment. Generally, in minority communities — and particularly in the African-American community — I
don’t see many working in those fields, and I would assume that’s more than likely due to a lack of exposure.”
Since the program started in February, a typical work week has included four eight-hour days “in the field” developing skills on the job and one spent on training for coastal resource management, professional skills and speaking skills that have already been utilized to carry a message of sound environmental stewardship into local classrooms.
From a participant’s standpoint, being in the Corps might seem like any other temporary job or paid internship at first — a $10-an-hour gig with benefits that may or may not lead to a career opportunity down the road. But for Murphy High School graduate Claudia Washington the Corps has been more than a temporary job. It’s been a learning experience and a glimpse at a side of the Port City few trek through the mud far enough to see, at least not where she grew up.
“This is my first time really getting out into the wetlands, but I’ve always loved being in the woods,” Washington said, swabbing a freshly cut popcorn tree with herbicide. “I know a lot of people who don’t know all this is right here. It’s funny. I’ll post things on Snapchat and people will ask, ‘Are you even in Mobile?’”
Though the group’s day-to-day activities can vary, they’ve primarily focused on the removal of invasive, non-native plant species within the Three Mile Creek watershed — a waterway for which MBNEP has already generated a management plan and where the city of Mobile this week broke ground on a greenway corridor.
One work site, at the end of Maple Street, is on city property while another, farther down the waterway, is privately owned by Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson. Along with a majority of the watershed, the areas surrounding the creek have become severely overgrown with privet, elephant ears and Chinese tallow, often referred to as “popcorn trees.”
“These non-native species were introduced, and with rapid reproductive abilities and lacking natural grazers, they spread incredibly fast, frequently ‘squeezing out’ the native species on which local birds, wildlife and fish depend,” Herder said. “Acres of wetlands and thousands of popcorn trees, privet and taro have already been eliminated.”
More specifically, the Corps had killed 23,723 invasive plants as of
May 8, though more are poised to meet a similar fate before the program concludes in July. However, the Corps is not only destroying plants. It has also planted pine trees in the floodplains of restored streams, undertaken drainage improvements in the Toulmin’s Spring Branch subwatershed and planted native vegetation to create marsh habitat on the northern tips of Mon Louis Island on the tail end of a $3.34 million restoration project.
Building trust, developing skills
Before any of the participants started working in the field, all of the members went through a nine-day intensive training session in Florida.
Under the direction of SCA team leaders Alison Brown and Randal Weamer, the members of the Corps undertook training and received certifications in chainsaw operation, prescribed fire, wilderness, basic first aid, CPR and canoeing — all of which should make them more valuable to contractors looking to hire people for similar projects in the future.
Working in the South Alabama heat in knee-deep mud with 10 strangers would test anyone’s patience, but add in potentially dangerous tools, terrain, snakes and alligators, and building trust in your co-workers becomes paramount.
“I think after the training we all sort of developed this level of trust, to where it’s like, ‘I can trust this dude with a chainsaw or using a hatchet,’” Charleston Ingram said. “We just all sort of learned to work as a team, and we got a sort of efficiency about us that kind of naturally developed.”
That efficiency was no accident. Brown and Weamer both said despite an initial learning curve, the majority of the group has continuously improved and most members quickly gravitated toward an aspect of the job fitting their particular skill sets.
“At first we let them do what they were comfortable with and then tried to build on that, but we also tried to encourage them to mix things up,” Weamer said. “That way they’re prepared for any other job in the future where they’d need to be adept at a wide range of skills.”
While those specific skills include things like plant identification, pesticide application and wilderness navigation, through CSA the Corps has also covered team building, conflict resolution and diversity training, all of which could be beneficial in any field.
For some of the younger members of the group with little to no work experience, landing their first job in a structured setting has been beneficial in its own way. Ingram, who attended Davidson High School before graduating through a homeschool program in 2016, said he’s had a lot of struggles with anxiety and was initially nervous about how he’d interact with his co-workers.
“Once I had a chance to actually get to know everybody, I started to understand more of where I fit in with people, and that’s kind of helped me with my anxiety overall in a sense,” Ingram said. “Honestly, this job has changed me for the better because it lets me work on myself every day.”
When the program ends in July, Pierce said MLKARC would “without question” remain committed to helping any members of the Corps looking for work in a related restoration field make the necessary connections, adding SCA and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation have made similar pledges.
Passing the torch
Aside from the actual hands-on work, another component of the program has focused on educating younger generations about the local environment and the issues surrounding it. To do that, members of the Corps have been speaking to sixth graders in Mobile County Public Schools.
Just last week, Kenneth White, one of the oldest members of the Corps, returned to his alma mater with Eric Lucas to speak with sixth graders at Mobile County Training School about the work they’ve done with the Corps over the past two months.
Asked about his presentation, White said he was “just talking about the watershed, trash and littering.”
“It was really good,” he added. “They listened.”
While the outreach to the local schools gave participants a tangible reason to focus on soft skills such as public speaking and project presentation, it was also central to the mission of the grant funding the Corps to begin with.
Pierce also said he believes having members with similar backgrounds deliver the message of environmental stewardship has had a greater impact on students because it allows them to better see themselves.
“I think it adds a layer of believability or credibility when you see someone who looks like you or who maybe has walked in your shoes,” he added. “It says, ‘If they can achieve that goal, then I can too,’ and that gives them something to aspire to and to attain.”
Members’ plans for the future are varied. Some aim to continue their education, others have old jobs waiting for them. Some, however, do plan to take up the program’s offer to help them find work on similar environmental projects down the road. One of those is Kevin Kidd.
“I’ve always been kind of an outdoor guy, and I was counselor at summer camp for a few years,” Kidd said. “I wasn’t really environmentally conscious, but I’m used to being outside.”
The exact future of the Corps program, however, is still up in the air, even though the majority of stakeholders remain supportive of the pilot program. Brown said part of her and Reamer’s job once the members leave is to compile data and evaluate ways the pilot program could be more effective and sustainable for CSA going forward.
Locally, though, the Conservation Corps requires money, and even with CSA’s $100,000 and local contributions from Alabama Power, the Crampton Trust and a handful of local politicos, MBNEP is still shy of the nonfederal funds needed to match NFWF’s grant.
Herder said grant proposals are in the works to secure the rest of the funding for the pilot, but with the MBNEP staff already stretched thin developing dozens of watershed management plans, it’s unclear what role MBNEP might have.
However, Herder did say The Nature Conservancy, a frequent partner of MBNEP, is already looking into grants that could make conservation corps a sustainable entity in Mobile.
“We recognize the value of it and we want this to be ongoing, but we’re doing so much else, too,” he added. “It would great if Nature Conservancy could find the funding to provide the infrastructure to sustain this going forward because this is the time. The iron’s hot.”