CORRALES – Swallowed up by dense stands of willows, the young members of the Urban Conservation Corps become muffled, disembodied voices as they dig and chop and prune their way through the bosque in the southern most portion of Corrales.
Traffic hums along on nearby Corrales Road and Alameda Boulevard but the Urban Conservation Corps crew might as well be in the jungles of Bolivia, soon lost to sight despite their bright, white hard hats and vivid blue uniform shirts.
“He was with Tyler.”
The crew’s project on this unseasonably warm September day last week is to rip out ravenna grass, also known as elephant grass, an invasive species first detected in the Middle Rio Grande Valley in the 1990s. It’s big grass that can grow to 5 feet tall. When its flower stalks expand it can stretch up to between 8 and 12 feet. Daunting stuff.
Left unchecked, ravenna grass can choke out native species, so the eight-member corps team pushes on through the heat and the tangle, digging, chopping and pruning, leaving piles of uprooted elephant grass in its wake.
“It’s a humbling job, being out here and giving back to the community,” said Andres Delgadillo, 22, of Albuquerque.
“It’s meaningful work,” Carl Sanfilipo, 22, of Albuquerque said. “Doing something besides retail, staying active and getting a good work ethic.”
“It’s being outside and using our bodies. It’s not being in an office,” said Victoria Lawton-Diez, 22, an Oregon transplant who has lived in Albuquerque for a year. “We are so pressured at our age. Going to college, getting a corporate job, earning six figures.”
Who needs that. There’s elephant grass to trash.
Only about four years old, the Urban Conservation Corps, headquartered at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque, is a conservation program of the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. Open to Albuquerque-area young people ages 17 to 25, the corps is involved in various types of habitat restoration work around the state.
“The program is a stepping stone to new opportunities for New Mexico youth and that means different things to different people,” said Jordan Stone, program manager. “They might be applying to graduate school or developing skills that will help them get a job after they are done with us.”
The program is funded by grants and by service fees, money paid by agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, for work done by the Conservation Corps.
Corps members just starting out get paid a stipend of $760 every two weeks for work seasons that last from two to six months. Corps members who return are looking at promotions and stipends of $1,000 to $1,100 every two weeks. And corps crew members who stick with the program through a season earn an education award, $1,200 to $3,000, paid directly to an education institution.
The Urban Conservation Corps is sometimes described as a program aimed at helping at-risk youth, and Stone said that a majority of the applicants do fit in that category.
“But we get a very diverse group,” he said. “We get college graduates interested in some kind of conservation career.”
Diego Estrada, 21, of Estancia, one of the corps crew members working in the Corrales bosque, just earned a degree in psychology from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
“This is my gap year,” he said. “I’m just trying to find out about myself. I want to join the Peace Corps.”
Lawton-Diez is taking a year off from the University of Oregon, where she studied English and American sign language. And Albuquerque native Juliette Conzuelo, 21, has studied environ-mental planning and design at Central New Mexico Community College. She wants to build sustainable housing and farm.
Seth Heitman, 22, of Albuquerque, recently returned from a Rocky Mountain Youth Corps disaster relief mission, repairing hurricane-damaged houses in the Lumberton and Beaumont areas of Texas. Already experienced in painting, plumbing and electrical and drywall work, he was a valuable member of that team, which included Ivan Robles, 21, of Albuquerque, a graduate of the Urban Conservation Corps.
“The corps helps you get on your feet,” Robles said in a phone interview. “You are learning from people in the crew. I was learning from Seth. It (the corps) is something you should think about if you don’t want to go to school right away.”
Heitman dropped out of high school, got his GED and attended CNM for a while. He said what he likes best about the Urban Conservation Corps is the team building and the educational award, which he intends to use for welding school.
Frozen boots and hope
Stone said of the more than 150 persons who have completed corps programs, 89 percent have gone on to some kind of education or employment. That might mean completing a GED or enrolling in college or finding work in the conservation field. He said one program graduate is a ranger at Valle De Oro, two are working at the Petroglyph National Monument, one is with the city of Albuquerque Parks and Recreation Department and a couple are with the Sandia Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest.
Crew chief Tyler Trainum, 21, of Albuquerque, is in his third season with the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, his first with the Urban Conservation Corps. He thinks about going into wildland fire fighting or becoming a game warden. But if it had not been for programs such as the Urban Conservation Corps, Trainum is not sure where he would be now.
“If I hadn’t found this, my prospects in life would be far different,” he said.
A few months after graduating from Sandia High School in 2015, Trainum moved in with a cousin in Amarillo, hoping to find a job on an oil rig. What he got into, he said, was drugs and too much alcohol.
“I hit rock bottom out there,” he said. “I moved back to Albuquerque and found a Rocky Mountain (Youth Corps) job on Craigslist. I thought it was a scam. ‘Do you like camping? Do you like adventure?’
“I was seeking more from my life, kind of ramping it up, looking for more challenges in my life.”
He got all that, joining for the March to August 2016 season, working on restoration projects throughout New Mexico, eight days on and six days off.
After that, he joined a back-country chainsaw crew with the Arizona Conservation Corps, working the August to December 2016 season.
“It was the happiest and most miserable I have ever been in my life,” he said. “In the fall, our boots were freezing up. We had to pour boiling water in them.”
From May to November 2017, he worked in northwest Montana. And now he’s back in New Mexico, sitting on a fallen tree in the Corrales bosque. But the view from there looks promising. He can see a way of life on which he can hang some hope.
“I don’t like being indoors,” he said. “I like jobs that are active, have a defined purpose and involves the outdoors.”