Community Impact: Travis County establishes Civilian Climate Corps to tackle environmental projects
Travis County commissioners voted April 20 to create a Civilian Climate Corps, a local initiative to put residents to work on climate and environment initiatives. A plan for the program is set to be established by June 15, including identifying sources of funding to create paid work and volunteer opportunities.
The Travis County Green Steering Committee has been tasked with assigning projects to the Travis County Civilian Climate Corps, which may involve park cleanups, tree planting, solar panel installations and community emergency preparedness initiatives. Commissioner Brigid Shea identified wildfire prevention and forestry management as key areas of focus as well.
"We know we have to do more controlled burns—that's one of the really important management techniques [to prevent wildfires], and we have a labor shortage on it, so we identified that this civilian climate corps can be a mechanism for getting some additional staffing and also training those folks with valuable skills that will make them extremely desirable to be hired for the forestry service," Shea said.
The TCCCC is also set to partner with the city of Austin's Civilian Conservation Corps, established in May 2020 under the leadership of Council Member Alison Alter. Shea called it a "real model" for Travis County. The ACCC has enlisted Austin residents economically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in green jobs working on city green space improvements and green construction and solar installation, among other projects. Alter said around 100 community members have entered the program so far.
The city and county may consider officially merging their efforts in the future, according to the resolution passed by commissioners, along with contributions from The University of Texas, Austin Community College, Huston-Tillotson University and other local entities.
"We are ready to scale this program in the Austin area. We need funds and we need partners, so this is a really important step," Alter said.
The TCCCC also draws inspiration from President Joe Biden administration's federal Civilian Climate Corps program, part of a climate-focused executive order by the president in January—in the tradition of the Civilian Conservation Corps established in 1933 under President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The federal corps is intended "to mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs," according to the White House.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, spoke in favor of establishing a local corps at the commissioners' meeting and said Travis County could potentially dip into the $247 million in federal dollars expected from the American Rescue Plan Act to help fund TCCCC projects. ARPA funds are partially intended to support COVID-19 pandemic recovery efforts but also allow for the creation of broad infrastructure improvement programs.
"The president has a new plan as part of his infrastructure program, but the place to begin is not from scratch but to build on what we have as a successful model in Travis County and what Council Member Alter has done at the city level," Doggett said.
Travis County has set ambitious environmental goals outlined in a climate action plan approved in June 2020, including the benchmark of reaching carbon neutrality in the community by 2050.
Commissioners also heard a report from county staff on Travis County's 2020 sustainability metrics with an update on progress toward the action plan's goals at the April 20 meeting. While some goals—including reaching carbon neutrality and reducing gas consumption in county buildings—are not yet in reach, the goal to have 75% of eligible Travis County employees work remotely has been successful. Largely due to a pandemic-driven paradigm shift, during the 2020 fiscal year, 3,268 county employees telecommuted. According to staff, increased telecommuting saved the county at least $1.3 million in utility usage.
"I don't think we can stress enough the significance of what we did at Travis County by adopting that goal," Shea said. "This is an important sort of proving ground, if you will, for what's happening both at the national level and global level."