- If there is one thing in common among those living in the Sierra Nevada, it is a genuine love of the land and the desire to preserve and protect it for generations to come. The Sierra Nevada Alliance has been fostering the protection and restoration of land, waterways, and wildlife since 1993, and is now working to create leaders in environmental conservation with its Sierra Corps Forestry Fellowship Program.
The new program is a win-win for conservation groups and those seeking careers in forestry and environmental fields alike.
“We’re providing [the fellows] with a meaningful career development opportunity,” said Sierra Corps Program Director Nicole Lutkemuller. “We’re trying to attract people to the program who have a desire to live and work in the Sierra [and who are] looking to continue to build relationships and knowledge.”
While employers in the area often have difficulty finding employees who are in for the long run, the exact opposite can be said for those seeking careers in environmental fields. “Long-term positions open up very seldomly,” Lutkemuller said, explaining that it can be difficult for those in the field to find continuous employment.
The Sierra Corps Forestry Fellowship Program aims to increase workforce capacity for organizations and agencies implementing forest health and natural resource management projects throughout the Sierra. With that in mind, the program is geared toward giving those interested in forestry the tools they need to further their careers. The inaugural group of five fellows joined their host organizations in January, with duties including implementing or continuing restoration projects, writing grant proposals, and planning and collaborating with other environmental and conservation groups.
Though much like an internship, the Sierra Corps decided to categorize their program as a fellowship to indicate that the positions are at a higher level. They are paid positions, fully funded by grants, and often include additional training in various areas. The Sierra Corps Program is administered by the Sierra Nevada Alliance, with funding provided by California Climate Investments via the Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program and California Timber Regulation and Forest Restoration Fund through the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.
Selected through a strategic application evaluation process, host sites are partnered with the program by bringing on a fellow for one to two years. The host site pays cash to the Alliance/Sierra Corps program, and in return, the program provides a Sierra Corps fellow to work at the site on forest health and wildfire resilience projects. The Sierra Corps Program pays the fellows an hourly wage and manages the administrative side of employment and training, but the fellows work on a daily basis directly for, and live in, the community of their host site.
“The cash match paid by host sites to the Sierra Corps Program is less than half of what it costs to hire, pay, manage, and train fellows,” Lutkemuller said. “The rest of the costs are covered by grant funds that the Sierra Corps program has acquired. The host sites have a full-time staff member join their team at a fraction of the cost of directly hiring and employing someone on their own.”
For this first year of the program, budgeting provided for 1,700 certified hours of work. Treated as employees, fellows earn $15 an hour in addition to health benefits and paid time off for personal and sick days. They also get a $1,500 allowance to be used toward furthering their training and education through programs outside of what the Sierra Corps offers.
“We also want to create future leaders in the Sierra in the conservation field,” Lutkemuller said, noting that most of the current cohort were already working in the Sierra prior to being named fellows.
Fellows this year were placed with five organizations spanning the Sierra Nevada in a variety of capacities: forest restoration fellow, American Forests and Eldorado National Forest; program liaison, Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions; program management fellow, Eastern California Water Association and American Forests; natural resource specialist, Sierra Valley Resource Conservation District; and project management fellow, Yosemite Sequoia Resource Conservation and Development Council with American Forests.
“Three out of five of our host sites this year did not have to pay cash match because we received grant funding to cover their cash match,” Lutkemuller noted. “So those three have a fellow working for them at zero direct cost to their organization.”
She hopes to bring the program closer to home, however, with plans to branch out into the greater Lake Tahoe area.
“I think it’s important for the Sierra Corps Program to expand into the Truckee and Tahoe region because Truckee/Tahoe is a high risk fire zone with important ecological and economic resources that need to be protected. Lake Tahoe [is a] global tourist destination and one of the most beautiful lakes in the world with unique ecological qualities,” she explained. “The Truckee/Tahoe region also experiences a huge amount of abuse from the tourism industry (litter, greenhouse gas emissions, illegal campfires during fire season, etc.) and would benefit from increased staffing capacity for forest health and wildfire mitigation projects. In addition, it is our goal to have fellows working in all communities throughout the Sierra and right now the Truckee/Tahoe region is left out of the program.”
Lutkemuller is hoping to be able to work with the North Tahoe Fire Protection District in the future, too, as fire prevention and forest health and restoration go hand in hand.
“Advantages to NTFPD in hosting a fellow would be increased staffing capacity at a fraction of the cost of hiring their own direct staff member,” she said. “Increased capacity for community outreach and engagement — reaching more people, getting more defensible space work done [equals] reducing community wildfire risk. A fellow could also take on tasks at the district that other staff had been managing and would free up time for staff to focus on other work.”