Veterans on an environmental mission

SoundCorps: Jobs program gives young adults and veterans environmental mission for Puget Sound

JOHN DODGE; Staff writerNovember 12, 2011 

PORT OF TACOMA — A new jobs program that connects military veterans to Puget Sound cleanup and recovery launched on the eve of Veterans Day at a Port of Tacoma wetlands restoration site called Gog-le-hi-te.

The former soldiers planted native shrubs and trees Thursday on the perimeter of the 9.5-acre site that was once a Tacoma city dump by the banks of the Puyallup River. It now plays host to salmon, gulls, shorebirds and amphibians.

The name of the wetlands, provided by the Puyallup Tribal Council in 1990, translates to “where land and waters meet.” This week, state agency heads gathered at the site to roll out the Puget SoundCorps, which is a new arm of the Washington Conservation Corps/AmeriCorps program that hires young adults to do environmental restoration work around the state.

The first six-member Puget SoundCorps crew consists of military veterans, guys like Ryan Peterson, 27, a Lakewood resident and former Army Specialist E-4 who recently finished an 18-month tour of duty in Iraq.

“I just kind of stumbled across this program,” Peterson said. “It’s great work.”

The corps members earn minimum wage and, if they complete a year of work, earn a $5,550 college grant from AmeriCorps. Peterson said he’ll probably use the stipend to pursue a career in habitat restoration.

The growth and success of the Puget SoundCorps will depend on the ability of the state to secure federal grants to fund the crews, noted Nick Mott, who supervises the Conservation Corps program for the state Department of Ecology.

This first crew, which is assigned habitat improvement projects in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties, is fueled by a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We owe these vets some job skills training,” Mott said. “And the therapeutic nature of the work makes it a nice match with veterans.”

Consolidating the work of the Washington Conservation Corps in one state agency – Ecology – and creating the Puget SoundCorps, was the brainchild of state Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark. The state Legislature approved it this year.

“A motivated work force is going to be fundamentally important to the success of the cleanup of Puget Sound,” Goldmark said.

The veterans joining Puget SoundCorps fit the bill, said state Department of Veteran Affairs Director John Lee.

“These are men and women who are dependable and know how to survive and work in the elements,” he said. “They don’t need a lot of training.”

The initial Puget SoundCorps crew was joined Thursday at the Port of Tacoma site by a six-member Conservation Corps crew.

In the months ahead, look for Puget SoundCorps crews to be assigned throughout the Puget Sound watershed, restoring wetlands, removing barriers in salmon-bearing streams, and eliminated bulkheads and creosote pilings from the shoreline, Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant said.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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