Send Letter to Editor

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Making fish cribs. WCC crews make hundreds of cribs each year to provide cover and habitat for young fish. © Paul Klein

December 2000

Crewing for the community

In today's Wisconsin Conservation Corps, young adults gain job skills, life experience and a sense of belonging.

Don Hammes

Making fish cribs. WCC crews make hundreds of cribs each year to provide cover and habitat for young fish.

© Paul Klein

Scott Harpold's day begins with a visit to Parfrey's Glen, but it's not the relaxing stroll that you or I might take through the picturesque state natural area near Devil's Lake. Harpold and his Wisconsin Conservation Corps (WCC) crew are clearing out broken branches and debris along a trail badly damaged by flooding.

The trail lies in a fragile, rare slice of nature, but the work is anything but delicate.

The violent flash floods had pushed aside sections of the boardwalk his crew had constructed. After clearing the paths and pulling out the debris by hand, Harpold and crew bring in new lumber, realign and re-anchor railroad ties to shore up the trail. Trained young men and women use chain saws to cut through a large fallen tree trunk pinning one section of boardwalk against a rock. Other crew members use pry bars to extricate the boardwalk and move it back into place over the stream.

Foot by foot and section by section, the WCC crew stationed at Devil's Lake State Park learns what teamwork is all about.

The program's scope

For 17 years the Wisconsin Conservation Corps has helped young adults learn job skills, build self-confidence and accomplish meaningful work for their communities in projects related to forestry, wildlife, fisheries, natural areas and energy conservation.

The forestry work focuses on timber stand improvement – brushing areas, thinning or pruning trees and creating optimal conditions for mixtures of species to grow. Crews also plant trees, create firebreaks and collect seeds for nursery tree production.

Many WCC crews assist in tagging and banding programs for fish, game and nongame species. Crew members work side-by-side with field researchers from the Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service to band osprey, geese and ducks or conduct population surveys of ducks, deer, snakes, fish, wolves and upland game birds.

Crews stay busy summer and winter creating and improving fisheries habitat. Last winter many of our northern crews cut logs and lashed together between 300 and 400 fish cribs, which were left on the ice to sink to lake bottoms during the spring thaw. The cribs provide cover and artificial structure in lakes where natural shelter is scarce. Crews also build and install half-log structures, brush shelters and anchored tree drops to harbor baitfish and small game fish.

WCC crews install rocks and wooden structures to help trout streams stay cool, narrow, deep and free of silt. They also place boom covers, lunker structures, brush bundles and riprap. To protect streams from cattle and flood waters, corps members also install streambank fencing, floodgates and cattle crossings to protect trout streams.

In natural areas WCC crews restore prairies, cut exotic plants, conduct prescribed burns, and plant trees, shrubs and grasses.

Seven of the 55 WCC crews help rehabilitate low-income housing. In the Milwaukee area, crews are sponsored by the Social Development Commission, TransCenter, Esperanza Unida, and the Social Development Commission. Outside of Milwaukee, WCC crews helped the Wisconsin Coulee Community Action Program (CAP) in Vernon County, the Housing Partnership of the Fox Cities, and Project Help-Northwest Homes in Polk County with housing projects. Crew members learn construction skills using hand tools and power equipment to construct garages, stairways, interior walls and roofs, and work side-by-side with experienced electricians and plumbers to master basic wiring and plumbing skills.

A crew member learns how to apply solder to copper pipe under the watchful eye of a licensed plumber. WCC aims to enhance job skills. © WCC
A crew member learns how to apply solder to copper pipe under the watchful eye of a licensed plumber. WCC aims to enhance job skills.


WCC energy conservation crews repair or replace doors and windows, blow insulation into walls, blanket water heaters and wrap pipes with insulating tape. They also caulk cracks, install weather stripping and repair roofing. Following a year with the Corps, many members use their WCC and/or AmeriCorps education grants to attend a technical college where they become certified in a construction trade. Others choose universities and seek a broader education.

Skills for lifelong learning

Once a means to hire the unemployed and complete conservation projects, the WCC is now dedicated to training young adults and helping them gain self-confidence and direction. Some Corps volunteers come from difficult, unstable family situations and have not finished high school. Others are high school graduates who need help setting their sights on attending a technical college or university. WCC tries to help them all.

The Corps' FOCUS (Future Opportunities, Career Understanding and Success) program is a self-directed curriculum that members spend four hours a week completing during their workweek. The WCC education program provides:

  • computer work stations at each crew site to promote computer literacy, keyboarding skills and learning through computer-based training;

  • direction to help members complete high school. In the past two years, more than 25 corps members obtained their certificate of General Education Development (GED). Many others completed one or more other five GED tests;

  • training modules to learn equipment safety, basic tool skills, background on job assignments, and life skills;

  • help in building resumes and portfolios to document job skills learned and training courses taken;

  • support for job hunting efforts;

  • partnerships with Wisconsin technical colleges, including an advanced standing credit agreement with one college, which enables corps members to receive up to four credits for their year of service with WCC.

Serving the community and recreating history

WCC is also involved in community development and service projects. For the past several years, WCC crews have helped Fishing Has No Boundaries prepare for weekend fishing events for disabled anglers in Eagle River, Hayward and Madison. Crews set up large food and equipment tents, made sure the piers and approaches were safe for participants and got the grounds ready for events. Crews have also manned the boats, worked the bait stations and maintained fishing equipment.

WCC crews staff Special Olympic events, local blood drives and the governor's Wisconsin Cares About Kids tent at the Wisconsin State Fair. These people-helping-people events create an atmosphere of friendship and camaraderie shared by participants, other volunteers and corps members. Nearly all go home from these events with new feelings of self-worth and accomplishment.

Each March, the D.C. Everest School District of Marathon County invites approximately 500 fourth graders from six elementary schools to visit the Twin Oaks Environmental Center just east of Wausau to learn about making maple syrup and candy from sap. From October through December 1999, WCC crews from the City of Tigerton, Portage County and the U.S. Forest Service in Medford built the center a new 16' x 32' sugarhouse that included a room for boiling sap and another for finishing syrup and other products.

Crews work with communities across the state to complete parks projects, construct affordable housing and install erosion controls. On any given day you can see corps members building park shelters, concession stands, skiing and hiking trails and shelters, boardwalks, bridges, ballparks, dugouts and bleachers. Housing projects include constructing porches, stairways and accessible ramps; installing drywall, siding and roofing; and laying concrete walks and driveways. Counties and cities employ WCC crews to fence streambanks, build retaining walls, create grass waterways and water diversions, build and install sediment barriers and riprap banks to stem erosion.

Many crews build new, but some find their job is to save the old. Crew Leader Don Mead and the Bayfield County WCC crew had a rather unusual project on its work schedule: They were asked by the Town of Bell "Save the Boats" Committee to help restore and protect three old fishing boats. The boats were part of a commercial fleet that employed 22 fishermen around the small city of Cornucopia, where at one time fishermen produced one million pounds of trout, herring and "longjaws" (Cisco) per year valued at $65,000.

Restoring memories and old fishing boats in Cornucopia. © Paul Klein
Restoring memories and old fishing boats in Cornucopia.

© Paul Klein

The three old boats, each one about 40 feet long, rest on a Lake Superior beach just outside Cornucopia. A popular tourist attraction, the dilapidated boats also held many memories for local residents.

The Bayfield County crew first replaced some of the old broken and rotten trusses and ribs inside the hull of the Twin Sisters. They then stripped off the old roof and added a layer of -inch plywood, roofing paper and tar. The Ruby and the Eagle were also given new roofs, caulking and other minor repairs.

Besides learning some new skills, corps members working on the old fishing boats gained a real appreciation for the historical significance of the boats, the commercial fishing tradition of Lake Superior and the people who made a life fishing the waters near Cornucopia.

Constructing a WCC crew

Each WCC crew is made up of five to seven members who are sponsored for one year by one or more government agencies, nonprofit organizations or a combination of the two. Sponsors agree to provide work projects, construction materials, necessary equipment and transportation. If one sponsor doesn't have 52 weeks of work, then co-sponsors or minor sponsors from the same area as the primary sponsor are invited to join in the work plan. Towns, school districts, lake associations, sporting clubs, environmental groups, the DNR, the U.S. Forest Service and town, county or city governments are customary sponsors.

Sponsors benefit in a number of ways when they sponsor WCC crews. Because corps members' wages are paid by WCC, sponsors can complete conservation and community development projects at minimal cost. Sponsors feel good about helping young people gain practical job skills, further their education, and take an interest in their communities. Sponsors know improvements made by WCC crews make communities stronger, happier and a better attraction for tourism dollars.

The Waupaca County Parks and Recreation Department has sponsored a WCC crew for 16 years. "It's the achievement of the corps members, whether they go on to school or acquire skills for a better job in the community, that makes sponsoring a crew worthwhile," says Roger Holman, department director. "In the process, the county gets a lot of good projects completed." The Eau Claire County Parks and Forest Department is another long-time sponsor. "Obviously, we feel we are getting a fair value from the crew," says Director John Staszcuk. "I've enjoyed working with all the fine young adults over the years and seeing the positive impact the crews have had, not only on county projects, but on the numerous co-sponsor and minor sponsor projects in our applications."


After two more storms blew through the Baraboo area, leaving additional clean-up work at Parfrey's Glen, the DNR-Devil's Lake crew finally finished their job in August 2000. The boardwalk was back in place, cleaned off, anchored solid and ready for visitors once again. Spring water was gurgling freely through the stream with no branches or limbs to impede its flow. Even though the crew was tired of the mud, mosquitoes and repeated visits to the glen, they left the work site with a great deal of pride in the work they'd accomplished. Nature's persistent efforts to keep Parfrey's Glen closed to the public were successfully defeated by an equally persistent and determined Wisconsin Conservation Corps crew

Don Hammes is the communications coordinator and publications editor for the Wisconsin Conservation Corps in Madison.