As Parks Suffer, Interior Hiring Youths to Groom 'New Generation of Conservationists'

In the first summer since mandatory sequestration cuts went into effect, outdoor playgrounds around the country have had to compensate for stripped budgets with reductions in access or services.

Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts announced at the beginning of April it would have to cut most of its programs along with some technicians and custodians to cope with a $376,000 shortfall. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon said at the end of April that it would have to shutter its visitor center for 30 days and cut tours for school groups by 80 percent. Acadia National Park in Maine declared it would have to reduce staffing and the park would be closed for an additional month.

In addition to many more examples like this across the nation's protected lands, the prospect of furloughs still looms as does the potential for decreased upkeep of nearly 30 percent of the country's land area controlled by the federal government.

But you'd hardly know there was fiscal trouble at the Interior Department with the latest project of President Obama and new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

For his Youth Jobs+ program, Obama "issued a challenge to businesses, non-profits, and government: work together to provide pathways to employment for low-income and disconnected youth," according to the White House. It follows on the heels of his 2012 Summer Jobs+ program that focused on youth employment in the heat of campaign season.

Jewell announced that $1.27 million is being pulled from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Bureau of Reclamation to support "conservation employment and mentoring opportunities for more than 600 young people ages 15-25 on public lands across the country."

“This initiative is a model of how public-private partnerships can both conserve our land and provide opportunities for our young people to obtain jobs skills and broaden their horizons by connecting with the great outdoors,” said Jewell. former president and CEO of REI.

She said the program builds not only on Obama's summer jobs call but on his 21st Century Conservation Service Corps idea announced in January.

In addition to federal funds, some of the money for the conservation jobs is coming from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Wells Fargo.

Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of NFWF, said the partnership was necessary "to foster a new generation of conservationists."

The jobs are divided among 22 projects ranging from fence modifications for the black-tailed prairie dog in Arizona to San Joaquin River weed management in central California. Another program is designed to teach Latino youth appreciation for shorebirds, and yet another will employ "youth from urban communities, Indian reservations and small Montana towns" to "enhance habitat" along Montana's portion of Lewis & Clark's route.

A month ago, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) sent a six-page letter to Jewell chiding the department for wasteful spending still undertaken even after sequestration threatened to delay the opening of Yellowstone National Park and the local community had to step in to plow the roads.

This includes the expansion of drone use to survey the habitat of pygmy rabbits in Idaho and count sheep in Nevada, and the designation of 13 new national historic landmarks including a $4 million per year project in Delaware lauded by Vice President Joe Biden.

"It makes little sense to expand the number of sites at the same time the budget of every other park is being cut and visitors are being turned away from visiting the White House," Coburn wrote. "…I would urge you to cease the designation of all new parks, monuments, and other sites and stop the expansion of existing parks until access to our greatest and most visited national treasures -- such as the Grand Canyon where 'visitors can expect longer lines' and shortened hours at the visitor center this summer -- has been restored."

Coburn asked Jewell for a list of all new monuments and parks as well as special resource studies launched since sequestration began March 1.

He also suggested the Interior Department nick frivolous spending such as the National Park Service's sponsorship of the National Covered Bridge Conference in Dayton, Ohio, at the beginning of June or its sponsorship of the State of the Beaver 2013 Conference in Oregon earlier this year.

"I believe your background in the private sector can assist the Department in avoiding many of the dire warnings that have been announced," Coburn nudged Jewell.