Conservation Corps’ Placer facility faces budget ax

Tied to uncertainty
By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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“Job uncertainty” is being added to the oft-repeated “Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions” credo the California Conservation Corps is known for. The uncertainty is over Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal to cut off funding for the popular program. It costs the state $34 million annually. That proposal to help close California’s $42 billion budget deficit has drawn the opposition of four former governors and spurred a campaign to save the corps. One of the corps’ seven live-in camps is located just a few miles east of Auburn at the end of Christian Valley Road. The camp occupies a 62-acre site that once housed a prison work facility. It currently employs 87 corps members and 20 staff workers. The uncertainty is preying on the mind of 24-year-old Jonathon Lavalley, a Tahoe resident who works out of the Placer County center. “I’m looking at my options if it closes,” Lavalley said Wednesday. “I’m working on joining the Coast Guard.” The corps has been a part of the Auburn area since 1978, soon after it was founded by Gov. Jerry Brown. Governors George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis have joined Brown is support of keeping the corps. Paul Carrillo, a retired corps deputy director and chairman of the effort to save it, said the ex-governors see the value of the program to the state and local communities. “Nobody knows what’s going on with the budget, but it’s obvious to anyone watching that there is a wave of public support for keeping the CCC because it’s such a great program,” Carrillo said. Carrillo said the threat is being taken seriously, although the analysis of the corps was flawed. A major flaw was not taking into account the cost of replacing the corps’ efforts on fires, floods and other emergencies with higher-paid workers. The corps, which educates as well as serves as an employer, provides work for 18- to 25-year-olds, many times connecting youth from the inner city with nature-oriented jobs in rural areas. They’re paid minimum wage and have access to scholarships at the end of their time with the corps. While $17 million in funding would be retained for non-residential urban centers, the budget proposal would leave centers like Auburn’s unfunded. The corps has 27 centers, including seven like the one in Christian Valley, which provide dormitories for members. Rod Thornhill, director of the Christian Valley center, said the corps has no trouble filling positions. The corps teaches a work ethic that sees participants up at 6 a.m., working throughout the day and, for many, studying for their general equivalency diploma at night. Over the course of the year, work parties fan out to other counties but also work closely with Placer County and other local governments to provide labor on local projects. Hidden Falls Regional Park recently completed an overlook built by the corps. Corps members have created shaded fuel breaks in Auburn and Foresthill, among other communities. Thornhill said the uncertainty is also hitting staff members. He’s been with the corps since 1982 and sees the benefits up close. “This job is about turning people around,” Thornhill said. “Young people who won’t have avenues to break away suddenly find themselves out of L.A. in the trees, working with Caltrans and other agencies, and seeing some wildlife. They get a good feel that there’s more to life.” The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Democrats and Republicans indicated they were close to a compromise on a budget agreement. But the two sides said that a few key details had to be worked out before they could agree on the plan to deal with a shortfall pegged at $42 billion through June 2010. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at