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VISTA, Dept. of Interior should expand efforts

America’s most degraded communities/environments — the Appalachian coal country, Western mining towns and our declining industrial neighborhoods — are the damaged consequences of the past, dragging our economy and our people down, endangering those that still remain and challenging our nation to face the consequences of our own history.

In Appalachia, more than 3- 1/2 million people live within a mile of an Abandoned Mine Land site. The Environmental Protection Agency found hardrock mining has polluted 40 percent of the headwaters of Western streams. As a result, both regions suffer health risks, loss of jobs, diminished recreational and tourist opportunities, and an exodus to more economically viable communities.

Even in the 2000 census, the national household income in mining communities East and West was 30 percent below the national average.

This legacy challenges our nation, trapping communities in poverty, but these communities share another legacy, one of hope and hard work that changed this nation, a self-help legacy too often overlooked in our rush toward the future in some other place.

East and West, new community volunteer organizations are breaking with a tradition of passive acceptance, determined to bring real change to their community and their economy.

Bypassing barriers of age and class, these organizations are uniting communities and working with government to create a stronger future, but they can’t do it alone.

They need the skills and commitment that recent college graduates can bring to a year or two of full-time national service as a VISTA volunteer in these rural communities — basic writing skills for grants; organizational skills to bring more community members and other partners to the table; education skills to help break the cycle of acceptance and poverty and change attitudes toward the degraded environment that surrounds them.

These positions address not only immediate and pressing environmental problems, they support their local communities in the longer, more hard-fought struggles of sustainability, economic viability, and successful futures for citizens in rural America.

This can happen now. In fact, it’s already happening in two places, thanks to a pioneering partnership among community volunteer organizations and two federal agencies, VISTA and the Department of the Interior Office of Surface Mining.

In more than 50 rural mining communities in Appalachia and in the Rocky Mountains, a single VISTA volunteer works with the sponsoring community group to bring real change to the region served. In the last year alone, these VISTA volunteers have:

• Formed 247 new partnerships.

• Logged 15,465 volunteer service hours from local citizens.

• Raised $23,000 in grants per community group.

These VISTA volunteers are part of two teams, one Eastern and one Western, creating partnerships and building the capacity to heal the land and the people in these remarkable places — making a real difference — but more VISTA positions are needed, now.

America stands poised to expand the VISTA program to better address communities impoverished by environmental degradation by building on the exemplary models created by these two teams.

• In Fiscal Year ’09, both of these teams could — and should — immediately expand to 100 positions on each team, bringing immediate capacity and engagement to rural communities in these areas. In the Appalachian coal country, there are 13 groups qualified and waiting for a VISTA volunteer, another 17 actively working to qualify right now and at least another 20 making inquiries, but there are no positions available. In the West, the team started only a year ago in Colorado with five positions and will have 17 by April. Serious inquiries from Montana and New Mexico are now being explored, but can not be filled at present.

• In FY 2010-12, VISTA should dedicate 1,000 new positions to an expanded service area of communities impoverished by environmental degradation nationwide. The existing teams provide a proven management structure; related state agencies have indicated their support and the economy will provide a large number of recent college graduates willing to commit their skills to a year of national service for the environment in these challenging communities.

• Interior could — and should — provide experienced coordination and financial support for this effort (as it is now doing with these two pioneering VISTA teams), helping communities to build the partnerships with government and others that directly and effectively address these challenges.

• A national program director should be hired at the Department of the Interior to help develop partnerships among other government agencies and to assist in supporting 1,000 VISTA positions in the field — providing special training, building partnerships, grant writing, and recruiting more volunteers to make these programs work successfully. Should Interior adopt the Appalachian team model, administrative support funding for the first year of each VISTA volunteer ($3,000) and adequate program director office funding would cost a total of $5 million in additional new funding over the FY 2010-2012 term. The VISTA contribution would cost an additional $6 million each year ($20,000 per VISTA, adding 300 volunteers per year).

It is important to note that on both existing teams each local supporting organization must pay some of the cost of the VISTA position, strengthening local partnerships, creating critical buy-in and eliminating any conflict over one federal agency funding another. VISTA provides the positions, while Interior coordination and support for administrative expenses go directly to the supporting organization. Interior does not fund the VISTA position itself.

For too long America has failed to support the efforts of these citizens and their communities. One thousand new VISTA positions will help mitigate decades of neglect by cleaning up polluted waterways, helping communities to create more viable economies that will create new jobs, bring new opportunities and a more sustainable future for rural America.

America needs to expand VISTA to specifically address communities impoverished by environmental degradation. One thousand full-time, collegetrained VISTAs working with local support can — and will — make a real difference, now. Only by reversing our own legacy of environmental degradation can we restore the economies of these regions and let the proud legacy of hope and hard work come full circle.

For more information, visit Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team at www.accwt.org or Western Hardrock Watershed Team at www.hardrockteam.org.

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