FIVE burly guys in green T-shirts are up to their knees in mud, picking up boulders as if they were papier-m^ach'e fakes from Universal Studios. They're riprapping a slope: placing rocks on the side of a stream bed to stabilize the eroding bank. The team is part of the Wisconsin Conservation Corps (WCC), a four-year-old organization based on the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that put young men to work rebuilding and replanting America during the Depression. Started by some CCC alumni, the Wisconsin corps is trying to do the kinds of things the parent group did, but adapted to life in the '80s. It's the kind of program, duplicated around the country, that many proponents of national service cite as a good example.
In the '30s, CCC laborers in Wisconsin planted trees, cleared trails, and built picnic tables and gazebos in state parks. They lived in remote camps, earned $5 a month (another $25 was sent home to their families), and were given education leading to a high school equivalency degree, according to Emil Muelver. Now the chairman of the board of directors for the WCC, Mr. Muelver worked for the CCC for 3 1/2 years during the Depression. ``It shaped my life,'' he says. As a result of the speaking ability he developed in his work with the CCC, Muelver became a union representative.
Muelver helped organize the WCC in 1984. Following the CCC model, it has crew leaders and assistant crew leaders. But this version is updated: Almost a third of the members are young women; there are minorities and people with disabilities.
These 535 members and 89 crew leaders live at home, not in camps. It is open to all unemployed youths 18 to 25; and according to state statute, half have to be on public assistance. Paid minimum wage, they're eligible for a $500 cash bonus or a $1,500 tuition voucher if they complete the 12-month stint. Volunteers also receive 12 to 20 hours of educational assistance, including help with writing cover letters and resumes.
A federal, state, or local agency with a project needing labor can apply for a team to come for a year. The volunteers build stone walls, restore prairies, maintain trails, and construct viewing platforms and structures for disabled people. A special unit in Milwaukee works on energy conservation projects, installing weatherstripping and insulation.
The first follow-up survey of 800 alumni brought only 120 responses. But of those, 93 percent are now either working at higher than minimum wage or enrolled in school, and 94 percent rated it a positive experience, according to Topf Wells, executive director of the WCC.
``The most important thing they come away with is tremendously enhanced self-respect,'' says Mr. Wells. ``These are the kinds of work results that are immediately apparent. When you make a lake accessible to disabled people there's no doubt that that is good work. And they learn to work with one another on a team. They've tackled a tough job for 12 months and found they can do it well.''
Ron Grasshoff, the lean and driven crew leader who gets his men on site at 6 a.m. for four strenuous, 10-hour days, says, ``I see development of work habits.'' Mr. Grasshoff does more than teach skills. He teaches them about prescribed burning, fish management, and flood plains; giving these young people a different sense of the outdoors that some of them hunt and fish in.
``It's been an education for me,'' says crew member Brian O'Neill. ``A lot of us have learned a lot about conservation. Before I couldn't tell an elm from a walnut tree.''
A lot of the backbreaking work they've done on this project - like the riprapping or yanking out brush to prepare a hillside for prairie restoration - which was sponsored by the state historical society, is ``good work that would never have gotten done'' if there hadn't been this pool of inexpensive labor, says Grasshoff.
Hard work. New skills. Meeting society's needs at low cost. Educational incentives. All of these elements in Wisconsin's program make it a microcosm of the kind of national service program proponents would like to see established by law. Many go beyond strictly conservation work to including care for the elderly and AIDs patients, as well as working in schools.
National service is seen by some as a way to solve two pressing societal problems: young people who lack goals or skills or money for college; and the pressing needs of the elderly, the military, and environment. A 1988 Gallup poll found it was favored by 83 percent of the total population and 87 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds.
Nine voluntary service bills are in the Senate, and the House has several too.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, which he's calling the ``new GI bill,'' is the most comprehensive. It establishes a citizens corps, open to high school grads of all ages (there is a senior corps also). The pay would be $100 a week, plus health insurance, education, housing, or job training incentives. Volunteers could work in education, the military, human services, conservation, public safety, or other fields. Armed services members would receive a $24,000 voucher upon completion of two years of service.
While Senator Nunn is in favor of making the program mandatory for any student receiving federal financial aid, critics argue that it discriminates against poor students. Nunn has worked with Senators Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island and Barbara A. Mikulski (D) of Maryland to produce a compromise bill that would not link service to federal aid for the first five years.
Another bill, by Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York and Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, would create a full-time conservation corps. Senator Mikulski wants a program similar to the National Guard, where volunteers work one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer.
Senator Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts is sponsoring a bill that would have a program running from kindergarten through college, as well as provide a full-time program for out-of-school youth and opportunities for adults, especially the elderly. Kennedy would encourage, not compel, schools to give course credit for specific volunteer work.
The bill offered by Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D) of Connecticut has a strong educational component: It allows participants to perform service before or after their education; allows vouchers to be used to reduce or eliminate existing student loans or to pay off defaulted loans. Her bill would also allow vouchers to be used for housing.
President George Bush has a youth initiative scheduled to be announced today.
His plan is aimed at all people, particularly young people from kindergarten to age 25. It's strictly voluntary and provides no compensation.
Institutions may mandate service by creating incentives and offering inducements: employers may use service as a hiring criterion; school districts may consider it for promotion. ``The administration feels the real purpose of service is not to make money, but to recognize an obligation toward others in society,'' Bush says.