Growing Program Creates Green Jobs, Maintains Underserved Parks

Building a sustainable future

Austin Civilian Conservation Corps crew lead Mars Lotus clears brush in the woods near Montopolis Neighborhood Park (Photo by John Anderson)

A morning chorus of chainsaws greets the day at Montopolis Neighborhood Park in East Austin. A seven-member Austin Civilian Conservation Corps crew is here to remove an invasive species called Ligustrum japonicum, or Japanese privet, a small tree with glossy green leaves and dark-purplish berries. It may look pretty – in fact, people plant Ligustrum in their yards for landscaping. But the hardy, adaptable plant quickly spreads and runs rampant through local forests, says ACCC crew member Lily Nylund. "It's taken over most of the city – it really messes with the nutrients in the soil and destroys biodiversity in Austin."

The crew will return to this site throughout their nine-months-long program, which began at the end of January. In addition to invasive species removal, they'll be restoring the park's trail network, which has become overgrown. The hope is that native plants will reclaim the land while Austinites reclaim the trail. "It's really obvious that a lot of these parks have been super underserviced," ACCC crew leader Mars Lotus said. "Trails have to be used, but this one hasn't seen as much use as it could, so hopefully we can make it more appealing to people."

The ACCC was established at the beginning of the pandemic, in May of 2020, and is evolving into a more permanent, equitable city initiative. It is funded in part by the American Rescue Plan Act – City Council allocated $6 million of ARPA funding to ACCC programming last June.

The initiative began as a response to COVID-19, helping place Austinites economically impacted by the pandemic into seasonal, green, full-time jobs that pay $15 to $17 per hour. But Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter, who authored the resolution creating the ACCC, says she envisions it as a longstanding program post-pandemic. "The ACCC was launched as a pandemic response but it has always been my goal and intent to make it an integral piece of how Austin completes necessary conservation work, how we provide pathways to green jobs, and how we build a sustainable future for our city and our community."

Job opportunities range from wildfire mitigation to public art, all with an emphasis on sustainability and conservation. The program has created more than 100 jobs, and the number is growing, Alter said.

Nylund had been working at a grocery store to pay rent when she found an ACCC crew member opening. "It's really cool to not hate your job. Every job I've had before this has been miserable, but now I actually like coming to work every day," she said.

Lotus was part of the ACCC's first cohort in 2021, before returning this year as a crew leader. "I had been waiting tables for a while and the pandemic of course hit restaurants really hard. The place I was working at closed down for a time." Lotus, a lover of the outdoors, learned about the ACCC and jumped at the opportunity. "I get so much from the natural spaces in Austin, it feels good to give something back to them."

“I get so much from the natural spaces in Austin, it feels good to give something back to them.” – ACCC crew leader Mars Lotus

The ACCC works in partnership with American YouthWorks' Texas Conservation Corps and divides crews into three groups across the city, explained Chris Gomon of AYW. There's a wildfire mitigation crew, a parks and preserves crew, and an Eastern Crescent crew – that's the team out at Montopolis Park – which focuses on the arc of settlements around and beyond the SH 130 toll road. "We definitely want to ensure that we have a program that is really addressing the conservation needs as well as the economic development needs of Austin residents," Gomon said. "The intention of the crew, especially with the Eastern Crescent crew, is to serve an area that has been disenfranchised for many years."

Alter says the ACCC was inspired in part by FDR's New Deal-era Civilian Conserva­tion Corps, a federally funded program that put thousands of Americans to work during the Great Depression. But the ACCC has the opportunity to create a different, more equitable legacy than its predecessor, said ACCC Program Coordinator* Kerstin Johans­son: "The Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s was racially segregated, and that history still has current impacts, and of course Aus­tin's racist history still has current impacts to today's workforce. We, along with our partners, are very much using this as a time to reevaluate what work-equitable workforce development is, as well as how it works with our Black [and] Indigenous [communities], and [other] communities of color."

Johansson said the ACCC's long-term goal is to create full-time employment opportunities. "I think seasonal work works well in recovery, but not when you're looking to create long-term impacts, especially for communities who are most impacted by COVID-19 and climate change." Funding will expire in 2024, she noted, but they're working to get more from multiple departments and partners. "We definitely don't think it's an adequate amount to go forward with a permanent program, and we're currently working to advocate for full-time staff to manage the program," she said.

Back out at Montopolis Neighborhood Park, the crew continues to cut down Ligus­trum and rake up forgotten trails. There's a purpose behind the work that ties crew members to each other and to the land, crew member Noah George says. "There was always a soullessness to jobs I've worked for in the past, where with this, everyone who's here really wants to be here and is dedicated to the cause."

* Editor's note Thursday 3-25 11:00 am: This story has been updated to include the correct spelling of Kerstin Johansson’s name.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle