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21CSC Champion of the Year, 2020 – Jim Ziolkowski
The 21CSC Champion of the Year Award is presented on an annual basis to dedicated individuals from organizations and federal agencies that partner with 21CSC programs. The 2020 honorees will be recognized in Washington, DC during the annual meeting of the Partnership for the 21CSC, part of The Corps Network 2020 National Conference. RSVP to attend the annual meeting by clicking here.
National Park Service
Mount Rainier National Park
Jim Ziolkowski had a transformative experience as a Student Conservation Association (SCA) member at Mount Rainier and went on to work there. In his current role supervising the park’s roads, trails and auto shop, Jim is a tireless advocate for Corps. He regularly uses his budget to find ways to engage several different 21CSC organizations, including SCA, American Conservation Experience, Northwest Youth Corps, and Washington Conservation Corps. Jim works across divisions at the park to consistently build a thriving youth program at Mount Rainier. He takes care to explore ways to make connections between various youth organizations and among the young people themselves. He also makes an effort to build the Mount Rainier professional trail crew with alums from Conservation Corps.
“Jim champions our work internally and externally; down the chain and up the chain. Always speaking from the heart, he is an eloquent spokesman about the impact youth conservation service had on him and the essential need to pass it forward.”
– Jay Satz, Senior Director of Partnerships and Innovation, Northwest Youth Corps
Continue reading for a Q&A with Jim
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get started in resource management?
I was going to school back in the ‘80s. I spent time at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. I got my degree at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I was having a hard time deciding what I would pursue as a career. I knew I wasn’t a businessman and most of my family was in the medical field, but I knew that wasn’t for me either. I was a pretty typical kid, not sure what I wanted to do or where I was going, but everybody said, “you need to go to school.”
When I was attending UWGB, I happened to read a bulletin board that had a poster for the Student Conservation Association (SCA). I filled out an application and checked the box that said I’d take any job at a national park. A couple months later I got a call from Mount Rainier.
I worked for three months at Paradise doing meadow restoration. I loved the work: it was physical; it was meaningful; I enjoyed the environment. There wasn’t anything about it I didn’t like. At that the end of that appointment, the trail crew hired me for another month. I did that and loved it even more. You could see your accomplishments at the end of the day and feel good about it.
That winter I filled out applications for temporary work at Mount Rainier for the trail crew and I got a position the next summer. I did seasonal trail crew work for about 13 years. As I gained experience, my seasons got longer and longer. I spent some of my shoulder seasons working for the utility shop, helping with the powerlines. Around 1996, I got a term position where I’d lead a trail crew in the summer and work on the powerline in the winter. A few years later I got a permanent job working as an electrical worker. In 2011, the trail supervisor retired, and I put in for and was offered that position. I supervised the trail crew until 2015 when they combined the roads, trails and auto shops. That is my current position, supervising Roads/Trails/Auto Shop.
I’ve always had a fondness for Corps because that’s how I found my direction. I wasn’t a disadvantaged youth, but I was unsure of what to do for a living so I could have a satisfying career and put food on the table. The Corps helped me find that direction.
Did you always have an interest in the outdoors? What did you study in school?
My actual degree was in “Biological Aspects of Conservation.” UWM didn’t have a standalone ecology or natural resource program, but this degree had a combination of different environmental sciences. I knew the only way I would get through school was to study environmental sciences; I just didn’t know what I was going to do with it after. Professor’s and their assistance told me I’d have to get my master’s degree to compete for a job, but I didn’t want to do that. I also knew I didn’t see myself doing a job where I’d be sitting behind a desk all day. I wanted to be working in the outdoors. That’s where the trail crew at Mount Rainier was perfect.
Tell us about how and why you have engaged with Service and Conservation Corps.
I look for opportunities where, through partnerships with Corps, we can provide an experience to young people who otherwise might not know these opportunities exist. I’m originally from Milwaukee, WI. I just happened to bump into that poster for SCA. I don’t know what made me stare at that poster and eventually pursue a position, but something clicked. Communication is different now – there’s so much more information out there – but I don’t think information about opportunities reaches everybody.
When I joined SCA, I didn’t know if it was going to be right for me. I took a chance and figured, “It’s three months; if it doesn’t work out, I’ll at least see some beautiful places.” The way our hiring system works, I think we wouldn’t reach people like me. We reach people who know this is what they want to do and they know how the hiring system works and they’re good on the computer. When Corps groups come in – whether they’re engaging young adults or youth – I like to think that, out of a crew, there could be another person like me where a light goes on and they decide this is what they’d like to do. And for people who don’t have that moment, I’d like to think we’re still providing a positive experience to learn about work ethic and an appreciation for parks.
I’ve always felt that the youth organizations reach a different audience than we can, and on top of that, I’d say they’re much better at preparing young folks who have never been in this environment or have done this kind of work. Corps bring them up to speed through their own training processes. When the young people come here, we’re not babysitting. We get a lot of work done. We have a lot of deferred maintenance; youth programs offer another way to get it done while providing the opportunity to gain experience.
A lot of times, we focus on getting the project done and getting trails open. Meanwhile, the youth organizations really take care of the personal needs of the young people, providing the training and any kind of special support they need.
Tell us about some of the projects or responsibilities for the Corpsmembers.
It’s all trail work. Some of it is tread work, regrading, and improving drainages. There’s vegetation removal and opening up corridors. We’ve had them do prep work for a project where we later came in with asphalt. It’s all been the same type of work that the NPS crews do except the corps crews use hand tools. I don’t think anyone benefits when we have a crew come in and do a tailor-made project just for them. Youth Corps work on projects that we would still need to get done even if they weren’t here. I think that’s reflected in how the partnership goes both in terms of how people feel about the Corps and how the youth groups feel about the work they have done. I think they feel like they accomplished something.
What advice would you offer to other employees from land/water management agencies and nonprofits that are interested in partnering with 21CSC programs? What are the benefits of partnering with a Corps?
I think people get caught up on production. When partnering with a youth or young adult group, the output maybe won’t be quite as much as you wanted it to be, but that can happen even when you hire your own well-seasoned crew. Production and linear feet is not always the best way to think; there are other values.
We struggle sometimes to pick up qualified people. The people we hire, especially when they’re new to the work, tend to have some kind of Corps background. I think that has to do with the amount of training they receive from the Corps. They might not have the specifics of how to get the project done, but they have the basic skills. They generally know how to use tools, maintain tools, and they know how to take care of themselves, which is a huge deal. When you’re working in the backcountry, you can’t just go home. It’s a different way of living and you have to be able to understand your role within a crew. By supporting youth organizations, you’re supporting that development. These are folks that will show up on a trail crew one day. I think back to myself: someone took a chance on me. I think that has worked out pretty well for me and for Mount Rainier. We might emphasize linear feet of production, but the true value of partnering with a Corps could take 10, 20 years to fully understand and see the return on that experience.
I also think youth groups in the park experience more than just the work. Almost everybody works on a trail crew, but we try to expose them to different fields, whether it’s maintenance, the road crew, carpentry, our utility shop…they get a feel for everything else that’s going on. We also expose them to the compliance and resources side of things, both cultural and natural. So, maybe trail work isn’t their thing, but maybe they enjoy the cultural assets in a park and they want to pursue that.
I want to specifically point out one program: there’s a couple, Mike and Sue Raney, who have made significant donations and they want us to target youth that would not typically have the opportunity to work on a crew. Going through Washington Conservation Corps and Northwest Youth Corps, we can reach those populations. With both crews, we can reach 10 young folks that probably wouldn’t end up working in a national park. I think that is what is strong about the partnership.
What advice would you offer to young people in 21CSC programs who are interested in careers in conservation and land/water management?
The advice I tell all the participants is that they should take advantage of the opportunity of being in a National Park. Yes, we want to focus on the work and get work done, but you’re here living in a national park. Take in as much as you can because you may not have this opportunity again. Get to know people. Get to know the area. The time goes fast and, when you leave, you want to feel like you made the most of your experience.