The stone tower at the top of Orcas Island’s Mount Constitution offers views from the Canadian Cascades to Mount Rainer to Mount Baker to the Olympics. Built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, this tower presents the popular image of the CCC as a remnant of the past. White men, aged 18–25, working for a monthly salary of $30, built several structures in Orcas’ Moran State Park, and a few on San Juan and other islands.
The CCC ended in 1941with the onset of World War II but has remained a vestigial concept in the region for over 60 years. In 2007 the program was revived in the San Juans, with a thoroughly modern upgrade, employing youth not only diverse in gender, race and ethnicity, but as young as 12.
The three San Juan Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) — on Lopez, Orcas, and San Juan — and the new Coast Salish Youth Stewardship Corps (CSYSC) are reshaping understanding of both “conservation” and “corps.”
The original CCC was mostly segregated. While Black men did serve in Washington CCC crews, none did so closer than Des Moines — and only for one year. A recent article in Crosscut reported that three initially integrated crews worked in Washington’s Millersylvania, Rainbow Falls and Saltwater State Parks, although the Black men were “assigned to work in the kitchen at Millersylvania and were segregated from the other enrollees.”
A year into the program CCC head Robert Fechner acceded to segregationist pressure and decreed that “no Black enrollees could serve outside their home state and that any currently doing so be promptly sent back for reassignment” to their home states. In the segregated CCC from 1934 on, no Black men appear to have worked in Washington.
Indigenous youth were never invited to participate in the CCC. In its place, Indian Emergency Conservation Work was formed as a “parallel program” focused on work within Indian reservations; no evidence of IECW appears in Western Washington historical accounts.
The right partner
The YCC originated on Lopez Island in 2007 along the vision of Nick Teague, who was working as the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) local outdoor recreation planner. When Teague met Josh Cook, an 11th grader looking for an Eagle Scout project, Teague knew he’d found the right partner to bring his idea to fruition. “I could tell right away that [Cook] was going to be one of those people that changed the world in a positive way,” Teague said.
Teague’s vision was an experiential education program for youth, based on the Northwest Youth Corps in Oregon. After moving to the San Juans and finding nothing similar, Teague began a mission to put youth “in the outdoors, put them to work and have them get paid.” There are two federal YCCs in western Washington, the closest at Mount Rainier where the minimum age was 18, same as back in the 1930s. Teague wanted something for younger teens. “When I was a kid, I was really into nature,” he said, “so I was trying to model what I wish I could have had.”
Teague and Cook formed Lopez Island Conservation Corps, funded and outfitted through BLM grants. In the summer of 2007, Cook and five other teens became the first crew; Teague was their leader.
Lopez resident Catalina Wood was on that first crew. “It was my first time doing anything like this; learning how to use tools, trail maintenance and invasive plant removal,” she said. She loved the way their work embedded concepts of biology, ecology, and cultural significance of the areas they worked in.
Local businesses donated snacks, and the Lopez Senior Center let Teague use their bus. They worked a full day, twice a week, for two months, and Teague initiated the annual Pulaski Award — a trail-building tool engraved with the name of the season’s most outstanding youth.
“There wasn’t a stipend until the third year,” Wood said, but she and her sister still signed up for multiple seasons. Today, Wood is encouraging her 12-year-old daughter to join the corps.
Teague said that the message from the kids at the end of that 2007 season was, “We want more: more hours, more experiences … we want to do more things.” He and Cook expanded the number of days to five days a week over three months, and Teague asked fellow islanders to form a board and establish LICC as a nonprofit organization so the community could support the program.
By 2014, other islanders were inviting Teague to make presentations, and Orcas and San Juan islands initiated their conservation corps modeled after LICC, under the San Juan Island nonprofit The Madrona Institute.
In 2017, all three YCCs merged to streamline programming, recruitment and fundraising. They now operate under the administration of the San Juan Islands Conservation District, with financial and advisory support from The Madrona Institute.
“Our goal is to support each island’s autonomy while being able to have community and consistency amongst the islands,” program coordinator Kelsey Kittleson explained. Kittleson is updating the YCC handbook to provide crew leaders with even more options for educational activities in the field.
Today’s YCCs embody Teague’s original goals of “respecting nature, respecting each other,” and making “healthy choices and work habits.” San Juan Islander Luke Fincher — once a crew member and now a crew leader — described that combination of hard work and fellowship with reference to a noxious weed: “Thinking of our tansy ragwort removal days — those roots can run deep, but our teamwork runs deeper!”
Habitat restoration of the endangered Island marble butterfly made a strong impression on Fincher. The National Parks Service says of this important pollinating species that “scattered locations on San Juan and Lopez islands [are believed] to be the only viable population in the world.” Fincher said his YCC work taught him that the island community “holds a crucial role in restoring this species to larger numbers.”
Fincher is the poster child of how the YCC can shape lives. Joining the San Juan YCC in 2015 at not quite 12 years old, he participated every year, becoming a crew-leader-in-training in 2018, then a leader in 2021. Now a freshman at Western Washington University, Fincher feels the YCC’s influence steering his choices of study.
“Joining a program like this at such a young age planted the idea of conservation and sustainability into my head,” he said. He derives lots of fulfillment guiding middle-school-aged students like his younger self, and said, “I have applied to work again this summer … which would mark my eighth season of participation.”
Wood called crew work— despite the sweat and dirt — “relaxing and therapeutic.”
Her observations are supported by research. Lopez resident David Hall, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Island Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, pointed to an exhaustive list of scientific studies showing positive health effects of time spent in nature.
Specific to youth, Hall singled out a 2018 study from Belgium that found that “there is significant evidence for an inverse relationship between green space exposure and emotional and behavioral problems” in children and adolescents.
A Coast Salish connection
Connections with the land as a prescription for youth health — not only mental, but cultural and spiritual — is behind the latest evolution of the conservation corps idea: the Coast Salish Youth Stewardship Corps (CSYSC). Founded by former YCC manager Erin Licata and her husband, Sam Barr, an enrolled member of the Samish tribe, the vision of the CSYSC is to link Coast Salish kids not just to nature in general, but to the lands and waters of their heritage, and to each other.
Licata and Barr, funded by grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and donations, led youth from different tribes in canoeing, camping and stewardship projects throughout the San Juans from 2017 to 2020. They spent a week on each island, joining in with the projects of local crews and replacing cultural barriers with shared experience.
But the CSYSC’s focus, said Licata, remains on the understanding of youths’ kinship ties to each other and to their environment. This means restoring ancient practices like camas gardening and baking the camas roots in earthen ovens with the participation of an intergenerational community. “We hope to plant the seed, to set them up for the future,” she said, imagining those youth as community leaders, or “the next BLM manager or National Park director.”
Tribal people share a history of forced removal from the islands, Licata said, “which were once a thoughtfully managed landscape of camas, salmon, and clam gardens.” After more than a century being separated onto reservations, “we see this divide happening, with people not understanding … that they’re all related to each other,” she said.
The goal is to get intergenerational people together from each of the tribes with ancestral ties to the San Juans — “that’s part of the heritage,” Licata emphasized. Like the early YCCs, the CSYSC focuses on ages 14–18 but most of the work is intergenerational. CSYSC is open to any Indigenous youth, whether from a large nation like the Lummi or Tulalip or a small tribe like the Samish, or any individual Indigenous teen living in the region.
It’s challenging work, Licata said. “It’s not an easy task to gather up youth from as far away as Seattle or the peninsula … get ’em all in vehicles, cart ’em across on the ferry. It’s quite a feat!”
COVID brought all crews to a halt in 2020. While the YCCs restarted in 2021, the CSYSC paused programming and focused on planning. “COVID gave us space to step back and get guidance from the community of elders and mentors,” Licata said.
CSYSC crews will not only take to the land and waters this summer, but also will continue weekend sessions in the fall and spring. CSYSC hopes to become year-round, Licata said. “The calendar of the 13 moons is what guides the work: ‘oh, this is the season when we gather that or do this!’ ”
Licata and Barr envision a future where Coast Salish peoples can freely paddle to places on the islands and be able to call them home again, without having to resort to cars and ferries or be a guest. In the Northern Straits Salish language, Licata said, “tree” and “land” have the same root for word as “people.”
Teague and Licata agree that the programs are replicable on the mainland. “Any community can do this,” said Teague. It doesn’t matter whether the program’s impetus comes from the county, or the Y, or a church, Teague said, as long as the founders have what he calls “a profound commitment to making the best, most supportive outcome for the youth of the community.”
Licata emphasized the need for passionate, inspiring people to be the drivers, and she feels sure such people are out there in every community. “It’s our kids! It’s their future! They’re going to be facing climate change and everything. So it’s necessary that we give them tools to make their journey bearable.”
— Reported by Gretchen K. Wing