Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Seattle-based EarthCorps teaches stewardship to the world

by September 1st, 2011

Editor’s note: Public Data Ferret’s “mother blog” site Social Capital Review periodically profiles noteworthy nonprofits or community initiatives with ties to our base coverage area of Western Washington.

By Scott Patton

You already know that Washington’s extensive trail network serves tens of thousands of annual users. But you may not know that it’s also a training ground for 15,000 volunteers a year from all over the globe, who learn outdoor stewardship from the local non-profit EarthCorps, headquartered off Sand Point Way in Northeast Seattle next to Magnuson Park.

On a recent summer weekend, EarthCorps member and crew leader A.J. Velon was helping move rocks that weigh hundreds of pounds to build a turnpike on the Snoqualmie Lake Trail. The Snoqualmie Lake camp used by the crew is an eight mile hike from a fairly remote trail head. The crew of six included participants from Kazakhstan, Peru, and Fiji. The work starts everyday at 7:30 am and goes until 5:00 pm and consists of tasks ranging from repairing campsites, to repairing trails and building drainage structures. This goes on for 11 days.

Most of the work is physically taxing; it’s all done by hand. The group spent most of their time building a turnpike, which is a raised area of packed down dirt on top of a foundation of rocks. The construction work required the crew to carry rocks weighing hundreds of pounds. Often four or five workers were needed to move them and put them into place on the trail. Despite the exhausting nature of the labor involved, the volunteers are still upbeat and quite proud of the work they’ve done.

EarthCorps volunteers hard at work, improving the Snoqualmie Lake Trail/Scott Patton

Velon said, “backcountry work is an experience that is not comparable to any other work. It’s an excellent opportunity to test your strength and endurance both physically and mentally. It’s a challenge, but the sense of accomplishment, of helping the environment and changing as a person makes it worth it.”

Velon, originally from the Chicago area, went to school at Illinois State University where she earned a BA in religion and politics. After college she came to the Northwest on an Americorps assignment which sparked an interest in the environment and brought her into contact with EarthCorps. She’s been with EarthCorps nearly two years now, and plans on continuing to work in this field using the outdoor project management experience she’s gained.

EarthCorps was founded as Cascadia Quest in 1993 by Dwight Wilson, who had returned to the region from the Peace Corps with the goal of preserving the unique ecosystem of the region and bringing together youth from all over the globe in the spirit of creating a better world through volunteering. According to executive director Steve Dubiel, EarthCorps’ current mission is to not just restore the environment but to do so in a way that builds community globally.

The organization started out with just 40 volunteers, by planting trees three weeks out of the year. Today they have 20 full-time staff members, 50 corps members like Velon, and had help from 15,000 volunteers last year. Volunteers range from teenagers to senior citizens. They come to EarthCorps from the community at large, schools, civic organizations, corporations such as R.E.I., other environmental groups like the Cascade Land Conservancy.

Corps members tend to be between the ages of 18-26. Many have degrees in fields such as environmental science and biology, but others have backgrounds in academic majors such as math, political science and philosophy. Most of them have previous experience working with other non-profits such as the Peace Corps, smaller regional organizations like the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps or international organizations like the Great Baikal Trail organization. Half of the corp members come from the organization Americorps. The rest are here on J-1 visas issued by the State Department for study-based exchange programs. Their responsibilities include planting trees in urban environments, trail work in the backcountry, managing volunteers and staging environmental education workshops.

There are currently two kinds of EarthCorp projects. The first is basic environmental restoration; doing things like removing noxious plants and planting trees in places like city parks. The other is working to maintain and improve trails in both urban and backcountry settings. Dubiel says this is crucial to their mission, because trails encourage both access to and stewardship of the outdoors.

Currently EarthCorps has backcountry projects in progress at Necklace Valley and Snoqualmie Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness of the Snoqulaime Mount Baker National Forest, in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service. For opportunities with EarthCorps, see their volunteer calendar.

Earthcorps crew taking a pause from work on the Snoqualmie Lake Trail in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness/Scott Patton

Scott Patton is a recent graduate of Central Washington University where he studied political science and history with the goal of working as a community organizer. At CWU, he was an active member of Vox Voices for Planned Parenthood, and worked on a congressional campaign. Currently he lives in Orting, Wash., where he was raised. He spends his time participating in bicycle racing, and working at a warehouse.

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