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Veterans find green jobs in southwestern Colorado

The sound of chainsaws could be heard from the backyards of homes along the edges of Archuleta County’s largest subdivision last week as the Veterans Green Corps worked to reduce wildfire hazards on adjacent National Forest lands.

The Veterans Green Corps is made up of crews of young military veterans, who are working on fuels reduction, forest health and trails projects on public lands through an effort funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The goal is to train the veterans for employment in emerging conservation careers, while stimulating the economies of rural communities.

Crews are trained by the nonprofit Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC), in coordination with Veterans Green Jobs, a national nonprofit that offers education and career development to military veterans. Over the next two years, the two organizations hope to train up to 50 veterans in Colorado.

Crew member Steven Parker, 23, whose family owns Navajo Rentals in Pagosa Springs, served in the Marines for four years at Camp Pendleton in basic infantry. He’s been working on the Veteran Green Corps fuels-reduction crew in Archuleta County this summer and fall.

“I had an interest in working with other veterans and with the environment,” Parker said. “This is a great crew; it’s a new learning experience every day.”

He and the rest of the Durango-based sawyer crew received nine weeks of training at the Colorado Fire Camp in Salida to become certified as Class A fellers.

“I had worked for my father as a mechanic and was familiar with chainsaws, so when I heard about this opportunity, everything clicked,” Parker said.

SCC also provides the veterans with firefighter training, so they become Red-Card qualified and are eligible for a job on a Forest Service fire crew.

Jason Lawrence, Veteran Green Corps Coordinator, who acts as a liaison between SCC and Veterans Green Jobs, checks on the crews regularly. An Air Force veteran himself, Lawrence served as a liaison with the Army, so the job was a natural for him.

“We’re currently overseeing three crews of eight members each,” Lawrence said. “Two are working as sawyer crews on the San Juan National Forest; the other as a trail crew on the Rio Grande National Forest.”

The sawyer crews have been concentrating on hand thinning dense forests adjacent to private property and recreational sites. So far, they’ve reduced wildfire danger on 30 acres of National Forest near the Piedra River Trailhead and another 30 acres of National Forest adjacent to Pagosa subdivisions. Next, they’ll move on to Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, where they’ll thin about 100 acres. If time and weather allow, they’ll also clear the forest around the Lower Piedra Campground.

SCC provides the crews with equipment and supplies, while Scott Wagner, Pagosa Ranger District Fuels Forester, administers the projects by marking trees to be cut and providing specifications.

“They’re very safety conscious and have a positive attitude,” Wagner said. “Several have inquired about jobs in the Forest Service, and this is good experience if they do have an interest in a government career or similar type of work.”

Wagner says the crews have been invaluable in areas where he can’t use prescribed fire or mechanical equipment to reduce fire danger because of proximity to recreational use, populated areas, or archaeological sites. In other areas, steep topography and rocky terrain make the hand crews a necessity.

Their current project is adjacent to Pagosa Highlands Estates, where an earlier hydro-mowing project left a 300-foot buffer zone due to safety concerns.

“The houses are right up against the forest boundary,” Wagner said. “We couldn’t get close to the houses with the heavy equipment, so being able to hire the veteran crews to hand thin that area has been great.”

Crew leader Ray Curry, 25, served as a Marine in Iraq and later worked for mortuary affairs during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. A native of Annapolis, Md., Curry was working for the Veterans Administration (VA), when he learned about the Veterans Green Corps.

“The part that really sticks with me most is the empowerment of vets. It makes a big difference coming back from combat into the civilian sector,” Curry said. “They give us the tools and skills to work in environmental sustainability fields.”

Crew leader Josh Sherrock, 28, from St. Louis, Mo., worked on aircraft as a Marine aboard Navy ships in Iraq and Kuwait. After graduating with a degree in economics, he also worked for the VA but longed for a career in the outdoors.

“It was a lot of sitting inside working for the VA, which didn’t sit well with me,” Sherrock said. “I like working with chainsaws — it makes the day go by fast.”

Crew member Kevin Swinderman, 33, served a decade in the National Guard on active duty at bases in Oklahoma, Texas and California. He was studying history at Fort Lewis College when he read about the Veterans Green Corps in the Durango Herald classified ads.

“There’s a camaraderie in the military, because we have so much in common,” he said. “It’s great to work with other veterans because they share your experiences.”

Crew member Nick Morgan, 25, of West Virginia, served in the Army Reserves for four years as a heavy equipment operator and engineer, before being stationed at Baghdad International Airport clearing transports. Through Veterans Green Corps, he has worked on both trails and sawyer crews.

“I like the backcountry experience,” Morgan said. “Although I have a degree in business, I enjoy hands-on work in the outdoors; I don’t like to sit still.”

Amy Foss, SCC Director of Operations, said that federal ARRA dollars are funding 60 weeks of work for sawyer crews on the San Juan and 60 weeks of work for trail crews on the Rio Grande this year.

“In 2010, ARRA funding will allow us to hire four sawyer crews and four trail crews, with each assignment lasting 12 weeks,” said Foss. “We expect funding for the Veterans Green Corps crews to continue until 2011.”

(Ann Bond is the Public Affairs Specialist for the San Juan Public Lands Center.)