By Jennifer Henion
Triplicate staff writer
Hidden deep in the Klamath redwood forest is a stretch of Hoppaw Creek crushed by canyon rock slides and scoured by 100 years of use as a skid road by loggers.
Once a major spawning ground for the now threatened coho and other salmon, the Hoppaw became a muddy, barren stream unsuitable and unpassable to fish.
This is where the Del Norte Center California Conservation Corp has done some of its most important work for the past 20 years, reopening 8 miles of spawning habitat and increasing Hoppaw Creek salmon numbers by 300 percent.
The corps' other important work is done on the ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the mouth of the Klamath River. On that ridge, corps members eat, sleep, go to school and become better citizens.
"We are the people's work force. But instead of just getting used up for a year, we try to develop life skills and return them to the community with more confidence and more abilities," said Bob Fitch, a 22-year employee of the CCC, now serving as operations supervisor and widely loved mentor to 75 corp members between the ages of 18 and 24.
All of that good work is in danger of disappearing, however. The CCC's Del Norte Center has been axed from the state budget and slated for closure in early January.
The CCC is a statewide program for young people who generally sign up for a year to do community and conservation projects while completing high school or earning college credits.
At the Del Norte Center, most corps members stay much longer often for as many years as they can and many of them become trained employees of the California Department of Fish and Game, the state and national parks and volunteers in the communities where they live.
They become people they never imagined themselves to be.
"There's a huge feeling of accomplishment. It kind of makes the other problems in your life disappear," said Trent Riegel, 20, from the northern Sacramento valley.
Riegel has been a corps member for more than two years and risen in the ranks to crew leader.
He was just out of high school when his grandmother stopped at a CCC booth at her county fair and signed up the unknowing Riegel to receive information in the mail.
"I never thought I would be doing outside work and now I can't imagine doing anything else," he said.
The now-fit young man came to the Del Norte Center about 40 pounds overweight and with no real direction for his life.
Now Riegel is passionate about doing stream and fish population restoration work and, after working in the field under Fish and Game supervisors, he knows his stuff.
"I want to be a water resource analyst for Fish and Game and hopefully I will have a job doing that next year. There's a lot field work in it," he said, adding that he plans to finish the college work he has started at the Del Norte Center and earn a degree in aquaculture.
Riegel and many others among the 75 corps members at the Del Norte Center just finished their seasonal work on Hoppaw creek this week.
It has been a 22-year project that began with removing giant logs and boulders from the creek to create space for water to flow.
The crew now uses a carefully plotted trail along the creek for access miles up stream. They have created about four long stretching steps out of rock and redwood planks to help fish get to spawning grounds and to help create a water flow in the creek that will clean out decades of harmful silt.
The CCC members have completed similar rehabilitation projects in the Smith River watershed on Rowdy Creek.
Fish and Game fish habitat specialist John Schwabe started his career 18 years ago at the Del Norte Center as a project director.
Now he supervises the CCC's creek projects to assure Fish and Game standards are followed and helps problem solve with the crews.
He said without the work of the CCC, salmon and other river fish populations would not be on the rise and a negative ripple effect would be felt through the community.
"If we do not get coho delisted it's considered threatened now it could severely affect the commercial fishery and it will definitely impact sport fishing," said Schwabe.
Schwabe also said that without the work crews provided by the corps, Del Norte won't get the millions in state and federal stream and fish restoration grant monies it does now.
But besides losing the work the young people provide, there is a sense of community the corps center atop Requa Road gives to the often dislocated youth that reside there an effect that reverberates into the communities that youth make their homes in after leaving the corps.
The Del Norte Center, located in the old Klamath U.S. Air Force base, is like a small town.
There is a rooming house, a cozy office building with a library and kitchen, an outdoor garden, a building with a complete gym and half-court basketball.
Another building has a large cafe and another houses the corpsmember's own coffee house, complete with a pool table, big couches and large television.
"It's like losing a big hunk of family out of the community and for the amount of money the state is trying to save by getting rid of this program, is just ridiculous," Fitch said.
The California state budget allocates $1.7 million to the Del Norte Center for its yearly operation.
Each of those dollars is more than doubled, however, by the center.
"We turn that $1.7 million into just about $5 million. We can leverage what we get, and we can triple it in cash flow into the community," said Larry Hand, the center's project coordinator.
Much of the state allocation is used as match funds to bring in even more money from federal and state conservation grants.
Some grants are used to buy wood and machine shop equipment, which in turn is used in the resident college courses to teach corps members to become certified mechanics and carpenters.
The employees and corps members of the Del Norte Center are hoping to show the budget-slashing bureaucrats in Sacramento that their program is worth keeping.
"Without us here," said Fitch, "I really fear the natural resource would be very damaged, which would have negatively impacted our community."
WANT TO HELP?
The staff and corpsmen at the Del Norte Center of the California Conservation Corps are asking the public to help save the center by writing letters of support to these public officials:
Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, State Capitol Building, Sacramento, CA 95814; Phone: (916) 445-2841.
Wes Pratt, director, California Conservation Corps, 1719 24th St., Sacramento, CA 95816; (916) 341-3177.
Mary Nichols, secretary, The Resources Agency, 1416 9th St., Ste. 1311, Sacramento, CA 95814; (916) 653-7310.
Sen. Sam Aanestad, State Capitol, Room 3056, Sacramento, CA 95814; (916) 445-3353.
Assembly Member Patty Berg, P.O. Box 942849, Sacramento, CA 94249-0001; (916) 319-2001.