Conservation Corps and Transportation: Making the Connection is a funding guide and case study publication sponsored by The Corps Network and the Federal Highway Administration.
by Stuart Macdonald, Trail Consultant, American TrailsNovember 13, 2008
Public land managers should know about a combination of resources that can help accomplish their missions. Young people across America are eager to work, and funding is available to get projects started. To help connect stewardship needs with the right workforce, this Guide uses case studies from several States to explain how:
Federal transportation funding can be applied to natural resource and recreation projects. Every State has programs in place to make funds available to appropriate projects. America’s Service and Conservation Corps are trained and ready to do the work.
America’s surface transportation system is based on the Highway Users Trust Fund, which is managed by the U.S. Department of Transportation through the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The mission of FHWA is to provide States and Federal land agencies with financial and technical support for a variety of transportation purposes. The two important funding programs for public lands work are:
Our aim with this Guide is to help more organizations, including Service and Conservation Corps, access this important source of funding for stewardship of our public lands and resources. We also want to acquaint Federal and State land managers with the benefits of employing Corps members on a variety of projects. Finally, our goal is to help State resource and transportation agencies encourage the use of Corps in their funding programs.
Corps are state and local programs engaging primarily youth and young adults (ages 16-25) in service. Corps members receive training and mentoring adult leaders, a modest stipend, and opportunities for education and career preparation. By partnering with resource and recreation providers, these young people have a chance to do important work for our public lands. Many agencies see another important benefit: nurturing a pool of potential employees who are able to step into jobs with both training and enthusiasm.
The Recreational Trails Program (RTP) is an assistance program of FHWA which provides funds to the States for grants and educational programs. The goal of RTP is to develop and maintain recreational trails and trail-related facilities for both nonmotorized and motorized recreational activities. Nationwide, $85 million is available for federal fiscal year 2009, which ranges from about $850,000 for Rhode Island to over $6 million for California. Most states receive between $1.1 and $1.7 million annually. Official guidance for RTP notes that “States are encouraged to enter into contracts and cooperative agreements with qualified youth conservation or service corps.”
State transportation agencies are the contacts for another program called Transportation Enhancements (TE). These projects must clearly relate to transportation, thus making the use of funds very specific. Few state agencies have turned to Corps to access this type of funding as a result. Maine and Alaska are two states that have included Corps in TE-funded projects (see Case Studies). Eligible TE activities include pedestrian and bicycle facilities, scenic and historic highway programs, landscaping and beautification, historic preservation, and environmental mitigation.
RTP has been the source of most transportation-funded Corps projects. Each State administers its own programs, usually through a State resource or park agency (RTP) and transportation agency (TE). Each State develops its own procedures to solicit projects from project sponsors and to select projects for funding, in response to recreational trail needs within the State. The RTP encourages all kinds of trail enthusiasts to work together to provide a wide variety of recreational trail opportunities.
Several States provide encouragement to project sponsors to partner with Corps. California’s RTP application echoes the Federal language, encouraging applicants to “develop cooperative agreements with qualified youth conservation or service corps to perform trail construction and maintenance.” Some States include contact information for Corps organizations, and others allow extra points on grant applications for using Corps. Minnesota, for instance, gives “special consideration” to projects that involve “urban youth corps workers such as the Minnesota Conservation Corps.” Wyoming gives higher scores to projects that “will be accomplished solely by State of Wyoming youth service corps.”
RTP funds may be used for most types of trail work, though States may add their own restrictions including:
Federal legislation requires that States use 40 percent of their RTP funds for “diverse recreational trail use,” 30 percent for nonmotorized recreation, and 30 percent for motorized recreation. Only Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, and Rhode Island are exempt from the motorized requirement. Motorized recreation involves off-highway vehicles (OHVs) such as trail motorcycles, ATVs, and four-wheel drive vehicles as well as snowmobiles.
One of the goals of RTP is to provide funds to help agencies do a better job of managing motorized activities. Some of the greatest needs for resource protection are in the area of what federal agencies are calling "unmanaged recreation." Problems include erosion, impacts on sensitive habitat, and creation of unauthorized routes. While motorized recreation might not seem to be the ideal match for Corps’ missions, projects do involve typical Corps work, including trail maintenance, fencing, signing, revegetation, and other environmental improvements. In the Midwest and East, States have been developing new OHV riding areas and parks, which may also provide opportunities for Corps employment.
Corps have established good partnerships with several State OHV programs. Many States have funds from State vehicle fees or fuel tax which can be used to match Federal RTP funds. Most also report that there is less competition for grants in the motorized category. Examples of successful motorized projects that Corps have worked on include:
Applicants are generally responsible for meeting legal requirements and documenting the process. Working with a partner who can more easily take on these responsibilities is often an advantage. Most States have a detailed checklist to clarify these requirements and can provide help to funding applicants.
Projects also need to document compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other Federal environmental regulations. Some States also have their own environmental review process. Most eligible projects will qualify as Categorical Exclusions under NEPA (23 CFR 771.117). Each project, however, should be reviewed to ensure that it does not have a significant impact on critical habitat or other natural and cultural resources.
Increasingly, people with mobility limitations or differences expect public lands to be accessible for their enjoyment and full participation in outdoor recreation. Standards for addressing Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements are progressing towards finalization at an undetermined date. In the meantime, FHWA urges sponsors of projects for pedestrians to use the best available guidelines. FHWA notes that “Recreational trails primarily designed and constructed for use by equestrians, mountain bicyclists, snowmobile users, or off-highway vehicle users, are exempt from accessibility requirements even though they have occasional pedestrian use.” Routine maintenance or repair of existing trails without significant changes is also exempt.
The spirit of the ADA, however, is to consider ways to make trails more accessible. This is also an area where Corps can develop technical abilities and provide valuable services. Building trails on native soil or improved natural surfacing requires careful attention to grade and side-slope. Corps can provide the handwork to accomplish accessibility that can't be done by mechanized trail building. The key to success, however, is training staff and crewmembers to follow the guidelines for building or improving trails to a high standard of accessibility.
The Case Studies that follow highlight some of the many types of projects that have included Corps as partners in transportation funding. Some Corps find that these funds are essential to engaging young people. The broad goals of transportation programs have encouraged some creative thinking when developing new projects. However, the States are the key to successful partnerships, and each has its own specific goals and grant procedures. The first step for Corps should be to contact their State’s RTP and TE program administrators and become familiar with the opportunities.