Parks Champions: Military veterans restoring the Palouse to Cascades Trail

In a brand new collaboration, veterans in Eastern Washington have new opportunities on the Palouse to Cascades Trail.

Since 2005, the Veterans Conservation Corps (VCC) has engaged in projects that connect restoration work with ecotherapy throughout Washington State, but veterans in Eastern Washington are benefiting from further opportunities. In a new collaboration between the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs (WDVA), Washington State Parks and Washington State Parks Foundation (WSPF), military veterans are being supported with funds from REI, Patagonia and WSPF donors, to work in less developed eastern region of the 250+ mile Palouse to Cascades Trail – former John Wayne Pioneer Trail and other state parks in the Blue Mountain region. The positions will be a part of the launch of a new Veterans Conservation Corps Park Champions program to encourage veterans to connect with state parks through public service, job training and eco-therapy.

From the start, specific efforts of VCC projects have ranged from invasive removal and planting native species to plastic removal on the coast. But the main focus is social. “The metrics that are important are not just acres restored or plants planted,” explained Jason Alves, program manager for the VCC. “We want to know how people are doing. How connected does a person feel to his or her environment and community?”

VCC Park Champions Dan Nessly and Tom Ewing working on the Palouse to Cascades Trail near Ralston.

Parameters measured by the VCC to gauge the success of projects include retention rate–about 90 percent–and the numbers of veterans who move on to employment and education after completing jobs with the VCC. Two VCC Park Champions have already been offered positions at State Parks.

Another parameter on which the VCC focuses is self efficacy,  a concept that Jason admits is hard to measure, but that remains essential. “Self efficacy is one’s belief that he or she can contribute to and be a part of their community,” explained Alves. The idea is that people develop a certain set of skills in the military; the application of those skills outside of the military is not always so obvious. As Alves put it, “If i have a set of skills from the military, I do have the ability to follow directions, lead, pay attention to detail. All three of those things are really important to a project like a big blackberry removal.” Ultimately, positions in the VCC give veterans the opportunity to see themselves managing teams and working effectively.

Alves, whose involvement began as a student veteran and biology student at the University of Oregon, relates personally to the work of the VCC. “I was an avid hiker and fisher when I first got out of the military as my own means of coming home,” he said, adding that looking at natural resources and transitioning from the military are parts of a natural cycle that can go hand-in-hand.

In addition to facilitating new and innovative ways to connect veterans to ecotherapy, other support systems to which the VCC and the WDVA connect veterans include opportunities for higher education and employment, and resources for housing challenges, suicide prevention, and other support.

Positions are carried out in three- to six-month seasonal stints, from spring through fall, recurring each year. Efforts include volunteer engagement, in which the veterans in charge will lead work parties on various conservation efforts with a goal to connect other veterans from eastern Washington.

According to Alves, the VCC hopes to “engage the public with the trail in their backyard, and to tap local talent who know what’s best for the community and the trail.” Those involved, including Alves, are taking care to set up the VCC’s Parks Champions so that its efficacy and capacity can grow and provide positive impact for years to come.

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