As Colorado Announces Its Own Climate Corps, Democrats Push For A Far More Expansive National Version

Sam Brasch/CPR News
22-year-old Carly Sorensen with Mile High Youth Corps at a worksite in the Cold Springs Fire burnscar in Boulder County.

Carly Sorenson knew she wasn’t a fit for college after less than a year at Metro State University in Denver. 

After trying two majors, the 22-year-old from Niwot dropped out with a sinking sense of dread about her future. She knew she felt stifled in a classroom, but couldn’t imagine what would amount to a satisfying career. 

Today, Sorenson thinks she’s found it in a job with Mile High Youth Corps. Armed with a chainsaw named after a Pokemon creature (Bonsly, if you were wondering), she works to help prepare Colorado forests for an era of increased aridification driven by climate change. In a few years, she hopes to build on the experience to become a wildland firefighter. 

“I like being outside and working with my hands. This program has helped me realize there are so many other opportunities for me,” Sorenson said. 

Hundreds of similar Corps jobs could soon be coming to Colorado. On Friday, Sorenson’s current worksite at a Boulder County burn scar hosted a press conference to announce the new Colorado Climate Corps. Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera said the program, funded by a $1.7 million federal grant, will place 240 AmeriCorps members in 55 counties across the state to protect public lands and help low-income communities brace for the climate crisis.

Boulder Congressman Joe Neguse also joined the event to pitch his plan for a federal civilian climate corps as a part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. Funding for the program is included in the $3.5 trillion dollar reconciliation bill that House Democrats hope to pass this month.

“For the better part of a year and a half, we have been fighting to create a Climate Conservation Corps at the national level,” Neguse said. “Now I get to go back to Washington next week and tell them Colorado is leading the way in doing precisely that.”  

Congressman Joe Neguse at a press conference announcing a Colorado Climate Corps. The Democrat is currently pushing a far larger national program to hire young people help protect communities and forests from climate change.

The two-term Democrat has ensured a total of $10 billion in funding for the CCC program in the House version of the bill, as well as $40 billion for forest restoration and wildfire resiliency projects that the CCC would support. The funding went through three different committees: Natural Resources, Agriculture and the Department of Labor.

Whether of all that funding can survive the Senate is an open question. Democrats cannot lose a single vote in that chamber and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has already balked at the $3.5 trillion price tag and aggressive climate plans included in the reconciliation package. 

Still, Neguse has some powerful supporters in that chamber. He’s been working with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, on the CCC. And in July, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also threw his support behind the idea. 

Neguse said he has spent hours on the phone with his Senate colleagues over the last week. While he wouldn’t detail the substance of the conversations, he said he’s confident the conservation corps will not be on the chopping block. 

“My sense is that this is a program that can garner the support of every single Democratic, U.S. senator, including Sen. Manchin,” Neguse said. 

In fact, Neguse said the current question is how the final plan will split a $50 billion allocation for public lands and wildfire mitigation. The current proposal sets aside $10 billion for a new CCC program, but Neguse hopes to eventually expand it to a $30 billion proposal. 

Those ambitions have faced fierce opposition from some Republicans. Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Bobert, who represents Grand Junction, tried and failed to amend the program out of the reconciliation package last week, saying it would be “completely unnecessary” at a moment when many employers are struggling to find workers. 

The objection has highlighted a major difference between the current proposal and the original New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps on which it is based. President Franklin Roosevelt pushed the first program as a response to a deep economic depression. Its reincarnation would arrive at a moment when the U.S. is adding jobs as the country bounces back from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But Scott Segerstrom, executive director of the Colorado Youth Corps Association, said a healthy job market doesn’t mean the nation has done anything to protect itself from the dangers of a hotter planet. His organization will manage the Colorado Climate Corps, but he said something on the scale of Neguse’s plan is likely what’s necessary. 

“Economic expansion does not mitigate against a flood,” Segerstrom said. “Hiring youth, young adults and veterans will help prevent wildfires, will help prevent flooding, will contribute to trying to slow the warming of the atmosphere.”