The fight to clean up the Chesapeake Bay just got a new army.
Sixteen fresh-faced young men and women clad in white polo shirts took the stage in Annapolis last month as the inaugural class of the Chesapeake Conservation Corps. The program, which is funded by the state of Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Trust and the U.S. Department of Labor, provides a year of funding for each class member to help in a restoration project in the state.
The project's backers hope the young people, many of whom are college graduates, will decide to embark on careers in restoration and environmental work. In some cases, their work could lead to more grant funding that would create permanent positions.
"You don't know what you're in for, and we actually don't know what you're in for. But we know it's going to be good," U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin told the group. "The two priorities here are to protect the environment and create jobs, and we're going to do that."
The idea of a Bay Corps was modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps, a popular New Deal program focused on restoring rural lands and providing jobs during the Great Depression years. In 2008, an executive order from President Barack Obama recommended creating such a corps to support both restoration efforts and help U.S. youth find their way into conservation careers.
Last year, Maryland Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller introduced legislations to create the corps. The state is funding about half of the first year's $525,000 cost, with the trust raising the remainder. Constellation Energy also contributed $25,000.
The money will pay each corps member a salary of $16,000, plus health benefits. Each corps member must be 18 to 25 years old. The 16 organizations the corps will be helping include watershed groups, county government offices, land conservation groups, environmental foundations and the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Several corps members ought to be familiar with the premise - they came from AmeriCorps, the national service organization former President Bill Clinton started in 2003.
Katie Beecham, a 22-year-old recent graduate of Goucher College, was working at the aquarium when a professor told her about the project. Beecham will be spending her year with the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection, where she will focus on forestry projects.
Beecham said she was inspired to apply after what she'd seen on a summer trip along the Bay.
"I got to examine what it was like in the Chesapeake Bay. There are parts that are pristine and beautiful and parts that are polluted, and you can see that," she said.
Her new boss, Donald Outen, is thrilled to have her on board. He said the department, which has one of the few countywide forestry programs, could take three or four corps members. But they had to settle for one, and they were lucky to get her. A total of 28 organizations applied, asking for 37 people.
Outen said Beecham will focus her work on reforestation at county parks, particularly oak trees. She'll be working with nursery managers on growing saplings and seedlings. Her work could train her for any number of careers.
"We're obviously interested in getting the extra help with our work," Outen said. "But the real benefit here is - it's a great opportunity for young people."