Women are no strangers to the physically demanding work that National Park Service trail crews do each season in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. But to have a single SEKI CC (Sequoia-Kings Conservation Corps) unit made up of six women is a first.
The history of Conservation Corps workers in national parks is rooted in the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCCs) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. From 1933 to 1942, millions of American men and women worked in national parks and for numerous federal and state agencies to help reverse widespread unemployment in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
In the 1930s, all-female crews of impoverished women were employed by WPA archaeologist John Winterbourne who used these crews for excavation and lab work on dozens of national historic sites. Since these programs were disbanded after the U.S. entered World War II in 1942, federal, state, and local agencies later revived the Corps and continue today to employ millions of urban youth in service and job retraining programs.
The California Conservation Corps is a California Resources Agency program whose recruits have lots of experience working on projects in Sequoia and Kings Canyon. In 2016, the California Conservation Corps had a budget of $90.7 million.
SEKI CCs— The program in the local parks has lots of similarities with the state’s program. Both programs are open to young adults 18 to 25, and many are from poor urban neighborhoods but there are notable exceptions.
The SEKI CCs started in cooperation with the City of Fresno’s Economic Opportunities Commission so in its first few summers most of the youth were from Fresno or other Central Valley towns. The majority had never visited a national park previous to their seasonal assignment.
Participants would agree that they had no idea how hard the work would be or how beautiful the workplace.
“I feel proud and a sense of accomplishment when that job or trail is finished,” said one of the 2017 participants.
“The SEKI program has three separate CC units and is entirely funded by private donors,” said Lilia Villarino, an NPS trail crew employee who lends her experience to the all-female crew. Lilia is responsible for the crew’s transportation and making certain all the tools and equipment needed for each project are on-site and in working order.
Jessica Speich of Irvine said she is a forestry student at College of the Redwoods in Eureka and hopes to use her CC experience to one day land a permanent NPS position.
Diana Lopez of San Bernardino is currently in a Center for Employment Training (CET) truck driving school but now she sees other career options.
Valerie McCampbell of Eagan, Minn., serves as the crew supervisor. She said it makes her job easier and more fun when everyone likes each other “… and we all get along.”
On this day, the women were rebuilding and repairing winter damage to the NPS corrals at Mineral King. They knocked off an hour early as a typical high Sierra thunderstorm dumped about a half-inch of rain in a couple of hours.
When the recruits were asked if there is any downside to working in one of America’s most beautiful places, one said “… it might be when you wake up at night in the middle of one of these thunder storms and you find your tent is now in a river.”
The crews work together typically for two to six weeks depending on workload and funding. This year, the trails and park facilities were so ravaged by the heavy winter, the local parks can use all the help they can get.
Hard work, living outside in one of America’s most beautiful places, friendships and memories to last a lifetime — that’s the SEKI CCs.