The Student Conservation Association’s GulfCorps: Habitat Restoration & Job Creation for a Stronger Gulf Region

    Mission statement 

    The Student Conservation Association (SCA)’s mission is to build the next generation of conservation leaders and inspire lifelong stewardship of our environment and communities by engaging young people in hands-on service to the land.

    SCA’s GulfCorps mission is to restore the long-term health of the Gulf Coast’s ecosystem and economy. GulfCorps will achieve this objective by employing young adults who reside in communities directly affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in resource management projects that revive natural features and habitats on critical conservation lands.

    Photo credit: John Stanmeyer © TNC

    Core focus area 

    GulfCorps is a three-year, $7 million program designed to restore Gulf Coast habitats and communities impacted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster and establish a career path for 300 young adults within the region’s restoration and conservation economies.

    The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), SCA, and The Corps Network launched GulfCorps in January 2018. Additionally, the program includes local conservation corps from throughout the region and also is supported by multiple federal, state, and local agencies; NGOs; and community groups.

    TNC acts as GulfCorps’ prime grant awardee and program lead; TNC’s chief responsibilities include grant administration, data collection and reporting, guiding conservation and restoration project identification and planning, and program implementation. The Corps Network leads professional development and post-job placement efforts, coordinating an all-corps curriculum that guides participants through resume writing, mock interviews, and other professional development skills. SCA oversees GulfCorps’ orientation program, during which all corps members are trained in relevant individual and team skills, as well the safe and proper use of field tools (see more below in Participant Training).

    In addition, SCA directs the GulfCorps Alabama team. State teams are also managed by The Conservation Corps of the Emerald Coast (FL); American YouthWorks/Louisiana Conservation Corps and Limitless Vistas, Inc. (LA); CLIMB CDC (MS); and American Conservation Experience and American Youth Works/Texas Conservation Corps (TX).

    In the master program’s first year, teams consisting of 10 individuals – two experienced team leaders plus eight corps members, aged 18-26 – were deployed for six months in each of the five Gulf States. Many crew members were from underserved populations or were U.S. military veterans. In its second year, GulfCorps expanded to two teams per state. The program’s third year is just getting underway with two additional teams per state, working for an expanded period of up to 10 months.

    The SCA GulfCorps teams collaborate with a wide range of cohorts. Crews work with federal partners such as the USFWS’s Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge; state offices including as the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Alabama State Parks, and the Alabama Division Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries; local governments including the City of Orange Beach and City of Mobile, and non-profit organizations ranging from the Weeks Bay Foundation to the Alabama Hiking Trails Society and Dog River Clearwater Revival. These partners also assist with chainsaws, water quality, prescribed burning, and carpentry training.

    Participant Training
    Preparation is a crucial first step. At the beginning of each season, SCA leads a comprehensive orientation for all GulfCorps teams. Topics include leadership, team-building, communication, risk management, emergency preparedness, conflict resolution, diversity/equity/inclusion, career planning, “Leave No Trace” practices, and other skills.

    SCA subsequently immerses its Alabama corps members in an intensive week-long educational and training regime that familiarizes participants with the science, techniques, and tools employed in various restoration practices, as well as with estuarine life, coastal habitats, invasive species, and more.

    SCA trains and certifies participants in CPR, Wilderness First Aid, and S-212 Wildland Fire Chainsaw usage. As needed, members may also obtain their Prescribed Fire Certification.

    Ecological Improvements
    SCA GulfCorps participants perform hands-on restoration and repair projects that benefit Alabama’s coastal ecosystems such as wetlands, bogs, seacoast forests, pine savannahs, oyster reefs, rivers, and streams.

    Members specialize in shoreline stabilization, native wetland and stream revegetation, oyster reef restoration, invasive species eradication, conservation and land management activities, habitat and water quality assessments, prescribed fire management, project monitoring, and other key habitat conservation practices that help restore coastal habitats and create more resilient seashores.

    Over the first two years of the program (with each “year” consisting of six months of field work), SCA’s GulfCorps members completed scores of critically-needed projects along Alabama’s 60-mile Gulf shoreline, among them:

    • Rebuilt 2,250 feet of boardwalk and maintained 4,000 feet of trails at Meaher State Park, Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, and Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board property
    • Installed fencing and planted more than 6,400 sea oats to restore sand dunes on Dauphin Island public beaches
    • Removed more than 1,800 invasive apple snails and 4,500 eggs from Langan Lake and TriCentennial Park (this project required additional training in canoe/kayak safety and herbicide application)
    • Treated 400 acres of privet, popcorn trees, climbing ferns, coral ardisia, and other invasive species at multiple properties owned by state, local, and federal entities
    • Created and maintained 32,000 feet of fire lanes prior to prescribed burns in Mobile and Baldwin counties
    • Restored rare pitcher plant bogs at Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve with support from the Weeks Bay Foundation
    • Mapped more than 55 acres of state water-bottoms to help determine suitability for future oyster restoration efforts
    • Cleared hurricane debris to protect beach mouse habitat on Gulf Shores public beaches

      Professional Development
      In addition to forging a more resilient and sustainable Gulf Coast, corps members also gain the job-marketable training, skills, and experience necessary to advance their careers and secure future employment in the region’s restoration economy and in conservation in general.

      GulfCorps graduates are connected with job centers and leading universities that focus on training and educating a new generation of scientists, particularly from underrepresented minority communities.

      Thus far, upon graduating from the program, 74% of SCA’s GulfCorps members have secured jobs in the restoration economy. Others have continued their education and/or vocational training within the environmental field or returned to the GulfCorps as team leaders, where they assumed a supervisory and teaching role in support of new Corps members.

      Economic Development
      According to the NOAA Fisheries Office of Habitat Conservation, restoration programs such as GulfCorps are proven job creators – an average of 15 jobs per $1 million invested. With the experience and insights gained through GulfCorps, members are positioned to join the local workforce in an ongoing manner, benefitting both the economic and environmental sustainability of Gulf communities.

      Public Awareness
      GulfCorps also elevates awareness, stimulates stewardship, and promotes professional pathways by educating participants and surrounding communities about environmental resilience, sustainability, financial growth, and other opportunities associated with the Gulf region’s natural resources sector.

      Personal Development
      Beyond the many public benefits, studies have shown that as SCA members complete meaningful projects, they see the tangible results of their labor and understand that not only their work but that they themselves matter. Consequently, these young adults experience a range of character and developmental advancements. They become more self-confident and civically active. Their sense of place, recognition of the larger world around them, and commitment to the greater good all grow significantly. Together, these 21st century skills form a recipe for readiness in school, work, and life.

      Ashley Chastain, a 20-year-old from Mobile, AL, took an SCA GulfCorps position in the initiative’s first season and returned in Season 2 as an Apprentice Crew Leader. Then she leveraged that experience to secure another SCA position in Louisiana, this time as an education and outreach intern.

      “SCA GulfCorps changed my life completely,” Ashley states. “It has given me a new outlook on the environment, an appreciation for the community I have grown up in, and has introduced me to a field I now want to make a career out of. I could not be more thankful.”

      “Joining GulfCorps allowed me to accomplish my goals and really opened my eyes to the environment,” adds Eric Lucas, 21 and also from Mobile. He credits “SCA career days specialized to each individual on the team” with helping him “finally figure out what I want to do in life.”

    Intended outcomes