Veterans Take on Restoring Parks

This spring, in a brand new collaboration, veterans in Eastern Washington will have new opportunities on the John Wayne Pioneer 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 could benefit from further opportunities. In a new collaboration between the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs (WDVA), Washington State Parks, the Washington State Parks Foundation (WSPF), and private supporters, two new positions are slated to take off this spring in the less developed eastern region of the 300 mile former railway, the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. 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?”

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. 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.

The details are still ironing themselves out, but positions on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail will most likely be carried out in three- to six-month seasonal stints, from spring through fall, recurring each year. Efforts will 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 John Wayne Trail project so that its efficacy and capacity can grow and provide positive impact for years to come.