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21st Century Conservation Service Corps Champion of the Week Interview: Renee Benally of the BIA’s Western Navajo Agency

The Partnership for the 21st Century Conservation Corps has selected several partners who work with 21CSC programs to recognize as “21st Century Conservation Service Corps Champions of the Week.” This week, Renee Benally, Natural Resource Specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Western Navajo Agency’s Branch of Natural Resources, kindly agreed to answer our questions about working with youth programs via email. Thanks to Renee for her support and insight!

Click here to meet our other 21CSC Champions of the Week.

Renee Benally, Natural Resource Specialist for the BIA's Western Navajo Agency, stops for a photo at Navajo Bridge near Lee's Ferry. Renee serves as the regional youth liason for the agency.

Renee Benally, Natural Resource Specialist for the BIA’s Western Navajo Agency, stops for a photo at Navajo Bridge near Lee’s Ferry. Renee serves as the regional youth liason for the agency.

How long have you been working as a Natural Resource Specialist for the BIA’s Western Navajo Agency and how did you get started?

I have been working with the BIA Navajo Region Western Navajo Agency’s Branch of Natural Resources for 10 years as Natural Resource Specialist at Tuba City. I started my career as a research specialist at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Environmental Health Science Center where I was exposed to superfund projects and learned about environmental toxicology. This position was only for 2 years so I had to find another job. I applied for my current position due to its close proximity to my mom and it involved ways to improve the Navajo Nation at the macro-level. This is my way of contributing back to my community.

When did you start working with young people, and specifically conservation corps?

I have been working with native youth since high school and college when the school would bring in students to be encouraged to pursue higher education, through exposure to campus life and science. I learned about conservation corps through the noxious weed control project at Monument Valley Tribal Park where it required hand pulling and the Corps was called American Conservation Experience. Afterward, through networking with other federal and tribal offices, I learned about the Southwest Conservation Corps and Coconino Rural Environmental Corps. Both programs focused on youth and their development.

Why do you think it’s important to connect young people to public lands and the conservation field?

It’s important for all Americans to learn about their land and ways to be a good land steward.  Younger Americans do not own land readily, but they want to contribute to conservation work to feel that sense of ownership and being a good land steward. At times some of the youth do not know how to start and need guidance. This is where programs like this come into play for training, education, work experience, and learning how to be a leader.  We have all been given opportunities in our lifetime and now it’s our time to carry on this tradition.

How do Corps better prepare Corpsmembers and crew leaders for natural resource and conservation careers, and how do you think land managers can help youth make the most of their experience?

Corps can better prepare Corpsmembers and Crew Leaders for natural resource and conservation careers by providing “hands on” field work experience. Land managers will sometimes need to adjust by being patient which is accomplished by being supportive; providing recommendations and encouragements; and having an incentive at the end of the work (i.e. a Certificate of Appreciation; a Letter of Recommendation; not everything has to come through dollar signs).

From your experience, what are the most suitable projects to work on with Corpsmembers?

The most suitable projects for Corpsmembers that I have experienced are weed inventory; fence maintenance; pulling weeds; planting; constructing soil erosion structures; assisting with biological surveys and range inventory; educational workshops out in the range with clients to mention a few. Youth can pick up field data collection easily especially using a GPS hand held device and they are very savvy at it. At times, I call this 15-minute training because they are taught at home using phones as texting and they enjoy it.

What type of funding have you and your agency used to support partnering with a conservation corps?

For BIA Natural Resources across the Navajo Nation, the BIA has utilized range and weed funding sources to engage youth into conservation projects via contract agreements.

The 21st Century Conservation Service Corps has the potential to bring significant attention to the work young people can accomplish on public lands and in their communities. It also has the potential to bring more funding across federal, state, and local agencies to support conservation corps and other youth programs. Given that many initiatives and programs come and go, what do you think will give the 21CSC staying power, and help it leave behind a unified legacy that captures the American imagination like the Civilian Conservation Corps?

There are many types of conservation work opportunities but to maintain this type of work, one would need to provide training (education and self-education) for the younger generation whether it’s done in classroom setting, or a webinar, or hands-on out in the field. This would fill in the gaps where others have left it open, especially nowadays since the federal government is replacing positions due to retirement. The next step is to find a way to gap the Pathway programs that the Department of Interior offers and conservation work experience.

Is there anything else you would tell land management agency employees interested in partnering with a local corps?

Youth need good role models. Youth need to be given an opportunity to be a part of the change since most do not own their own land. We, as land management agency employees, were all given opportunities when we were young. It is time that we step up to this recycling of knowledge and opportunity for our younger generation. Yes, it does take a village to raise a child.  We only have one Earth and we all play a role in caring for Earth.

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