In late April, modern-dance artist and choreographer Brenna Mosser of Minneapolis presented a production whose inspiration came from a source close to her heart: Her service with the Conservation Corps of Minnesota & Iowa.
The performance, which will be repeated Aug. 19 at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, is a dance quartet in progress that depicts the movement and behavior of whitetail deer.
“I got the idea while in the Conservation Corps when we’d have to walk through brush, prairies, raspberry patches, etc.,” said Mosser, 27, who started dancing at age 10. “The easiest way through was to follow the deer trail. You could see lots of evidence of deer behavior on these trails, from antler scratches on trees … to plants half-eaten. This showed me how deer shape the environment that they live in.”
This spring, roughly 240 young adults, ages 18 to 25, are serving in small Conservation Corps work crews throughout the Midwest. Like Mosser, they want to improve the region’s environment and maybe even find a career. Through a variety of programs (some last 11 months, from February to December) in urban settings to wilderness areas, participants receive on-the-job training in natural-resource management, habitat restoration and emergency response. In fact, in response to flooding in southwest Iowa, the corps recently deployed a crew of 13 and two staff members to help with recovery efforts in the region.
The group traces its roots to the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Franklin D. Roosevelt-era initiative that provided natural-resource jobs to unemployed young people during the Great Depression. The CCC planted millions of trees and constructed trails and shelters in more than 800 parks nationwide. The nine-year program helped shape the modern state and national park systems millions enjoy today.
The Conservation Corps, an AmeriCorps agency, partners with roughly 300 groups and agencies. Most notable are the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service. The vast majority of projects are done on public lands.
The group’s service projects vary by program and age level of its participants. Typical projects include prairie and oak savanna restoration, wildlife surveys, prescribed burns, tree plantings, and trail construction. The goal is for participants, who are recruited locally and nationally, to gain field experience and professional certifications for careers in natural-resource fields.
Below are three profiles of current corps participants.
Corps bio: AmeriCorps crew leader for young adult program; 2019 Corps Member of the Year
Fazzio comes from an outdoors family of backcountry hikers and campers. The experiences, she said, inspired her to pursue a degree in environmental science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Upon graduation, however, Fazzio faced a sobering reality: She needed a job. Since 2017, Fazzio has had four different conservation corps positions — work, she said, that’s physically and intellectually challenging and prepared her for a career she hopes is in land management and restoration.
“Working outdoors in, at times, extreme weather can be fatiguing, but a lot of the actual work is as well,” said Fazzio, who in middle school moved from Colorado to Minnetonka. “We use powerful, physical equipment like chain saws and brushsaws a lot, and our projects often involve physically demanding work. I’m often learning new skills, such as how to harvest trees from planting rows, or I’m learning a new technique, such as an advanced chainsawing maneuver.”
Each day, Fazzio said, lessons are learned and new challenges arise and are conquered. Her office isn’t too shabby, either. “While the work can be difficult and demanding, I do enjoy it — and I get to eat lunch in some really sweet outdoor places almost every day,” she said.
In 2018, Fazzio took a position as an aquatic invasive species specialist as part of the corps’ Individual Placement Program. For nearly a year, she worked with the invasive species staff of the Minnesota DNR.
“I really enjoyed the placement program — it was basically a really cool yearlong internship and I learned a great deal,” she said. “I got to settle in … and got used to the way the team worked and got to feel part of the team.”
This year, she’s leading a crew of five women at Three Rivers Park District’s nursery in Hanover, Minn. Her crew has been tasked to improve the landscape ecologically and recreationally. Fazzio said her land-management work varies daily — from planting and harvesting trees to prescribed burns to invasive species management.
“The biggest lesson I’ve taken away from the corps is this: What you’re doing is not as important as how you do it, or the people you impact while doing it.
“ ... I’ve also learned that my work can be service — service not just to a natural landscape but also to a community on the landscape, and to the people I interact with every day,” Fazzio said.
Corps bio: AmeriCorps crew member on school and community forest crew
In 2014, when Pringnitz was a member of the group’s Summer Youth Corps, a light bulb went on after his month of service.
Pringnitz realized, and rather suddenly, there was life beyond the Dassel-Cokato area of Meeker and Wright counties, where he grew up.
“I did a lot of maturing in that program,” Pringnitz said. “Part of it was just the exposure to people who were different than me, who weren’t like me. Where I grew up it was predominantly white and there wasn’t a lot of diversity. It opened the door to a lot of different people and ideas I had never heard before. We were a group working for a common goal. It was eye-opening.”
After graduating from high school in 2015, Pringnitz worked odd jobs before going back to the corps in 2018 — as a crew member, then as a crew leader. He’s built park benches, felled invasive trees (with a chain saw) for land restoration, and even learned to paddle a canoe, among other work.
“I remember my senior year in high school when we were studying the Great Depression and how connected I felt to the Civilian Conservation Corps,” said Pringnitz. “It’s just a great feeling being a part of that larger story. It’s really changed my life.”
What’s next? Adventure, Pringnitz said. He wants to push himself outside his comfort zone again and become a “wild land firefighter” and possibly join the National Guard, too. “I want to travel, I want to work hard and I want that excitement and that adventure,” he said. “By working with the Conservation Corps, I’ve learned that hard work and adventure nourishes my soul.”
Corps bio: Crew leader for young adult program
Smith isn’t trying to fool herself: She knows that once her tenure is up with the Conservation Corps, her next job can’t be behind a desk — at least not fully.
She may have grown up in the core of Minneapolis, but the call of the wild runs deep.
Smith started with the group in 2018. “I like being outdoors and doing work that requires getting a little dirty and sweaty. That’s me.”
Smith runs a crew of four, all women in their early 20s who have graduated from college. They work throughout Three Rivers Park District doing mostly prairie restorations, which includes buckthorn removal to collecting native prairie seeds for planting.
Smith, who has a two-year associate degree, said she wants to go back to school and major in wildlife management and conservation biology. For now she is content passing on her hard-earned field knowledge about land restoration to her crew.
“I feel very fulfilled doing this type of work,” said Smith, a certified wildland firefighter who also hopes to be a wilderness first responder.
“I also love teaching, so being a crew leader is the best of both worlds at this level.”
Smith hopes her career lands in large carnivore research. “Ever since I was little I wanted to become the head wolf biologist of Minnesota,” said Smith. “That dream from my childhood is still there, but I think now I’d rather be the assistant to the head wolf biologist so that I can be the one who goes out and collects data without as much paper work.”
She added: “I’d love to keep doing field work until my body can’t handle it anymore.”
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors writer. Reach him at email@example.com.