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COVID-19 Brings Cuts To Conservation Corps Crews, Trail Work

Montana Conservation Corps

Every summer, conservation crews cut a dent into the billion-dollar backlog of labor on public land in Montana. But the novel coronavirus means uncertainty and less work for the battalion of young adults working on trails and forests across the state.

Tiana Morris joined the Montana Conservation Corps [MCC] last winter to lead crews that would spend their summers digging into the dirt, building trails in some of the wildest pockets of Montana. But right now, she’s answering phones, fielding questions about coronavirus, in the governor’s office in Helena.

"It might not be conservation work, but we also signed up for a service program," Morris says.

Montana Conservation Corps has more than 800 volunteers each year, providing a total of more than 400,000 hours of work on state, federal, and private land in Montana. That means labor like building trails, felling trees to reduce fuels, and getting rid of invasive species. Every year, crew members work on enough trail to build a path from New York City to Disney World in Florida. It’s work crucial to maintaining public access, wildfire mitigation, and overall ecological health.

Morris signed on for her first year in 2014. She was a city kid from Atlanta and had heard about the mountains out west from books and movies.

"I was like, I’m not prepared for this in any way, shape or form. I’ve never hiked, never camped, I'm not in shape. But I don’t care, this seems like it’s gonna be a cool, super-crazy experience."

In the Corps, she found herself in the wilderness for nearly three weeks at a time, no cell service or shower or TV in sight. It was filthy and exhausting. She loved it and she never looked back. She went on to serve at other conservation corps across the country. But she never forgot Montana, so she came back to lead crews this spring.

Then, coronavirus stormed into the state. Morris and nearly 60 of her fellow crew leaders were suspended without pay. The projects they’d been working on — with partners like the Forest Service and national parks — were cancelled. Everything was uncertain. Her stipend, provided by the federal government's Americorps program, was meager to begin with.

"That’s all I could think of is like, I don’t really wanna go back to Atlanta, that’s not a place that I feel safe right now."

Along with three other crew leaders, she took her job at the governor’s office to make ends meet.

Staff members at the corps are feeling that uncertainty too. Jono McKinney, president and CEO of the MCC, says the organization depends on funding from spring projects to tide it over until the summer, when things pick up. But, he says, "When we lost those projects, we instantly were plunged into a cash flow crisis."

So the organization had to make difficult choices. They laid off or furloughed all but nine staff members. They had to cut a number of services entirely, including their high school and middle schools programs, which consist of about 400 volunteers. Last week, they managed to secure partial funding for suspended crew leaders like Tiana Morris until training starts back up in May.

But come summer, hundreds of crew members, mostly young adults, will fly in from across the country, and the nature of their work poses huge challenges for health and safety. Those crews eat, sleep, drive, and work together. Social distancing is next to impossible. They spend weeks at a time in the backcountry, cut off from the rest of the world and hours from the nearest medical care.

"We are working collaboratively with other conservation corps across the country to really develop, 'how do we operate a conservation corps program in this brave new world with the COVID-19 virus?'"

A Montana Conservation Corps work crew doing trail rehabilitation on Flathead Lake's Wild Horse Island, Sept. 2019.
Credit Aaron Bolton / Montana Public Radio
Montana Public Radio
A Montana Conservation Corps work crew doing trail rehabilitation on Flathead Lake's Wild Horse Island, Sept. 2019.

McKinney says lots of plans are still up in the air, but he expects this season will start late and run about six weeks shorter than normal. Crew members will initiate their service with a two-week quarantine when they arrive in June. They’ll institute new hygiene standards at camp. In the end, he expects crews will only be able to perform about 60 to 70 percent of the work as a normal year.

Dan Hottle, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, says MCC forms the backbone of conservation work in Montana’s national forests.

"Montana Conservation Corps typically provides us about 120,000 hours of service in Region One."

There’s about $880 million of work that’s been backlogged on Forest Service land in the region; trails, roads, fences and campsites in need of maintenance. Hottle says Forest Service crews which also work on trails are suspended right now, as well.

Another $325 million in deferred maintenance remains on National Park Service land in Montana. Chris Glenn, trails supervisor at Yellowstone National Park, says more than 1,000 miles of trails criss-cross the park. The work of building and maintaining those trails is a tremendous undertaking that mostly goes unseen.

"The more boots on the ground, as we like to say, the better," Glenn says.

He worries what budget shortfalls from the coronavirus-related closure of the park could mean for conservation projects. But he says there’s lots of room for optimism in the conversations with partners like the Montana Conservation Corps.

"Good things are happening. I’ve heard a lot of things that lift my spirit."

Montana’s stay-at-home order expires Friday. But it’s unclear how Gov. Steve Bullock’s phased reopening of the state will affect MCC crews. They'll be watching to see how soon they can get back to work in the woods.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Nick Mott is an reporter who also works on the Threshold podcast.