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An Interview with David Muraki, a 2014 Corps Legacy Achievement Award Winner
An Interview with David Muraki
This year, we at The Corps Network interviewed our three 2014 Corps Legacy Achievement Award winners to learn more about their experience and history in the Corps movement.
How did you become involved in the world of Service and Conservation Corps?
I had worked in three programs that combined youth and the outdoors based in Yosemite and the LA area by the time the CCC was created by Governor Jerry Brown in 1976. I could see how the new CCC by combining youth, hard work in the outdoors and conservation in a year of service could be very powerful and transformative. I joined and was transformed. In 2007, twelve years after leaving the CCC and with the support of then First Lady Maria Shriver I had the opportunity to choose my next assignment. The policy, grantmaking, and program development work of the past twelve years had been meaningful and working from a position higher up on the funding food chain was a treat but the draw of what the corps offered, real people doing real work everyday, was irresistible. As they say, “who’s got it better than us?”
Who are some of your heroes? What did they do to inspire you?
My heroes include John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot; farsighted leaders who set aside in perpetuity our public lands for all of us who have and will follow. There are others as well including Governor Jerry Brown who in 1981 secured national wild and scenic protection for 1,238 miles of California’s great northern rivers. I would add, on a daily basis, many of the accomplishments and contributions of our corps’ young people definitely qualify as heroic.
What are some of your most memorable experiences from working with Corps programs?
This is my favorite question. By the end of my third year in the Corps I had already accumulated a lifetime of memories. For 60 weeks during those three years I lived in a tent and supervised CCC trail crews working with the National Park Service in the backcountry of the High Sierra. So many memories – greeting the sunrise from a bivouac atop a huge granite peak, close extended encounters with the colorful cast of characters that comprise a trail crew (including a younger self and Scott Weaver too), the sheer excessive physical demands of a long maintenance run over Rancheria Mountain. These experiences more than any other shaped my values and work ethic and my understanding of the essence of corps programs. I learned a lot about effective supervision and leadership and left with a deep appreciation of our extraordinarily rich and exquisitely beautiful public lands and planet.
But the single experience that stands out as most memorable was more challenging. It took place on New Year’s Day 2009 as the Great Recession began driving in earnest a state budget crisis in California. On this day when I expected to be looking forward to the promise of a new year, I received a call giving me a heads up that the proposed state budget would call for eliminating the CCC. This call set off a chain of events over the next month that made me and our entire organization much stronger. We got better at communicating what we do and learned that our message was compelling to the degree that it could prevail during a time when budget cuts were made that were previously unthinkable. Print and digital media within a radius of thousands of miles published hundreds of articles all in support of CCC. I loved when they called us “iconic. “ CCC was never more widely known. We found out just how many good friends our crews had made by faithfully and reliably working hard every day for thirty years. Though the relationship amongst the corps in California has experienced its ups (mainly) and downs over the many years, the support CCC received from the Los Angeles and other corps has not been forgotten. By the end of the month furloughs of all “non-essential” state employees commenced and at the beginning of the first furlough day, CCC was called back to work and dispatched to save a neighborhood from an advancing mudslide. By then the future of the CCC was looking brighter and we had come to learn just how accurate is the equation: Event + Response = Outcome.
Which of your accomplishments as a leader in the Corps Movement are you most proud of?
When I think about the accomplishments of which I am most proud and that have survived the test of time the common ingredient is that I hired the right people to get the job done.
I’ve been very fortunate to be in a position to be influential (all positions are positions of influence) during two very different periods of time. The first period was in the late 70’s and early 80’s shortly after the CCC was created by Governor Jerry Brown. Legislation establishing the CCC included a sunset date so the Corps was under pressure to prove itself and become a permanent part of state government but overall these were wide open times and I had the opportunity to help develop programs that helped define the CCC. I am especially proud of two accomplishments during these early years:
(a) The Backcountry Trails Project has sent crews into California’s major wilderness areas for six months each year since 1979 (175 crews, 10,840 miles of trailwork) and embodied the CCC’s motto: “Hard Work, Low Pay, Miserable Conditions.”
(b) Establishment of a new residential base center at the mouth of the mighty Klamath River in Redwood National Park (1982). The fisheries programs of the Del Norte Center went on the receive the Robert Rodale – Renew America Award for the top fisheries conservation program in the nation (1991). The strong partnerships and integration of work, education and training were carried over to the Watershed Stewards Project (1994) whose corpsmembers have since assessed and restored hundreds of miles of critical salmon habitat.
The second period is the one from which we are just now leaving behind; one overshadowed by the “Great Recession.” As the economic downturn approached, the CCC was emerging from six very tough years. Despite the scarcity of the times, we rebuilt our core work, training, and education programs and developed new programs financed by new funding sources enabling the Corps to grow and remain relevant. We developed a major new partnership with State Parks focused on trail construction and maintenance across hundreds of park units, established a new generation of energy efficiency programs, expanded our disaster response capacity and conducted the largest wildfire response operations in the history of the Corps, expanded our portfolio of wildfire prevention and transportation enhancement projects and with the support of the US Forest Service, NOAA, Speaker of the California Assembly, John Perez, and Harry Bruell developed hundreds of new training and job placement opportunities for veterans. We even replaced our derelict vehicle fleet. I was really pleased to see in the Sacramento daily paper a front page article on state hiring during the budget crisis that the CCC had hired the highest number of employees of all departments in state government with the exception of the 65,000-employee Department of Corrections. We were proud to do our small part during a time when opportunities for young people were nearly nonexistent.
Given your experience, what is the primary piece of wisdom you could provide to Corpsmembers?
Work as hard as you can every day, always do your part on your crew, take full advantage of every opportunity especially the new and challenging and be aware that your performance will determine whether those opportunities are available to those who succeed you just as they were made available through the performance of those who preceded you. I would also remind them that they will be working for forty or more years and it will be to their great benefit to have access to opportunities that will be worth the investment of much of the prime time of their lives.
Among the many possibilities, what is the primary piece of wisdom you could provide to staff members at Corps?
I know this could sound really morbid but I would say: staff should picture themselves on their death bed when it’s too late to change anything and be pleased with the actions and decisions taken throughout their career. As corps staff know, a career in the corps provides a lot of opportunities to make a significant difference in many ways.
Ten or twenty years from now, what developments would you like to have taken place in the Corps Movement?
I would like to see the corps offer many more work, training, and leadership opportunities and be an integral part of an accessible, well-defined pathway for young people transitioning into the workforce. There is a huge need and it would be great for the country.
If any celebrity or public figure were to become an advocate for Corps, who would you want it to be and why?
The corps currently have great advocates: Interior Secretary Jewell and Secretary Salazar before her, General McChrystal, and in California, a term-limited state, Governor Jerry Brown who created the CCC in 1976 is Governor again. I had the great pleasure to work with Maria Shriver and she is a big reason why I had the opportunity to return to the CCC as Director. Given the wealth and fame that follows celebrity perhaps we make the corps the celebrity – we would be one of the most entertaining reality shows around.
When not working, how do you like to relax and enjoy yourself?
Landscape photography, construction, fly fishing, hiking & mountaineering of the less scary variety