Federal grant streams in cash for 'Green Duluth'

As the Great Recession grinds on, Angie Miller was inspired by an idea nearly 80 years old. Miller, executive director of Community Action Duluth, is building a mini-version of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the government-funded jobs program t...

River sediment
Sediment flows from the Nemadji River into the Superior Habor Basin and ultimately into Lake Superior. The photo shows the Superior entry with the ore docks in the top left of the photo. (File)

As the Great Recession grinds on, Angie Miller was inspired by an idea nearly 80 years old.

Miller, executive director of Community Action Duluth, is building a mini-version of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the government-funded jobs program that helped plant millions of trees and build conservation projects in the 1930s while offering meaningful work for people hit hard by the Great Depression.

"We're calling it the Watershed Conservation Corps,'' Miller said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency liked Miller's idea so much that it's giving Community Action Duluth $636,125 to make it work over the next two years.

Miller said the project will plant more than 20,000 trees over two years, working mostly with private landowners on conservation projects along a dozen Lake Superior and St. Louis Bay tributaries in the Duluth area. The EPA money should be available later this summer, with the project gearing up later this year.


The trees will slow and filter dirty runoff into streams, and other efforts will soften slopes and build berms to keep clay, dirt and pollution from running downstream.

Community Action Duluth is forming a subsidiary called Green Duluth that will administer the project. It's expected to include a crew leader and five full-time, year-long employees. The position will include health benefits and will pay somewhere between $11 and $13 per hour, Miller said.

"We want this to be a real job, not just for wages and benefits someone can live on, but so people can learn skills they can use to land a private sector job'' when the project is over, Miller said. "There is increasing demand for people to provide services to private landowners for conservation projects, and that's exactly the skills our people will have.''

The Duluth-based nonprofit has a long track record of battling poverty. But it surprised some in the Northland environmental research community when Community Action Duluth showed up on the list of 270 projects from Minnesota to New York approved by EPA in recent weeks as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Hundreds of proposals didn't make the cut.

This summer's round of spending is the biggest installment yet from the $475 million Congress and President Obama approved last year for the Great Lakes. It's the first big push of what will be a decades-long effort to clean up toxic sediments, reduce pollution and runoff into the lakes, restore and protect fish and wildlife habitat, stem the tide of invasive species and thwart beach closings and sewage overflows.

But what was Community Action Duluth doing on a list next to the University of Minnesota, the Pollution Control Agency, Northland College, University of Wisconsin Superior and the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources?

"We've been trying to find the kind of green jobs people are talking about as the future of our economy. ... But they are not easy to find in Duluth, especially for our clientele that is generally not college-educated and has fewer career skills,'' Miller said. "So we're going to create a few of our own.''

"Maybe jobs isn't the primary focus (of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative) but it shows me that protecting, restoring and enhancing the Great Lakes ecosystems can have a lot to do with creating jobs,'' said Julene Boe, executive director of the St. Louis River Alliance.


The project's name may be a bit confusing: Restoring Lake Superior's Cold Water Streams One Neighbor at a Time. But Miller says it reflects a key element of the effort: bringing private landowners into the fold protecting the watershed.

"We made a little advance contact with some landowners along local streams and we got an overwhelmingly positive response. People want to be involved in restoring the streams and Lake Superior,'' Miller said. "These are the people that need to be involved to make this work on a large scale.''

Boe agreed, noting that participants don't necessarily need to own land directly on a stream.

"The public has to be engaged for this kind of huge restoration effort to work, first in demanding that we get the funding'' from Congress,'' Boe said, "and then in doing their part. ... Everyone lives in a watershed, and what they do affects the water downstream. This (project) is focusing on what happens upstream.''

The project also includes a volunteer advisory panel, called the Habitat Action Team, which will include local conservation experts from state and federal agencies, local universities and research labs and environmental groups. They will include biologists, geologists, foresters, engineers and other professionals who can guide the work team on where to make the most impact.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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