Building a Climate Army: an Interview with Bob Doyle

Robert E. Doyle is a 43+ year veteran of the parks and natural resources field, currently serving as General Manager of the East Bay Regional Park District. Doyle has received numerous awards and recognition for his many decades of leadership in conservation, park policy advocacy, public health and public lands, climate action initiatives and industry innovations.

He also has the distinction of having served as a founding Board member of the East Bay Conservation Corps (now Civicorps).  In honor of his impending retirement from EBRPD, and to celebrate his role getting the East Bay Conservation Corps (EBCC) off the ground 37 years ago, we reached out to Bob.  We talked about the early days of EBCC, the important role of the Conservation Corps movement, and his insistence that to combat climate change, we need a climate army.  Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.  

 Learning about the early days

Tell us about your role in the founding of the East Bay Conservation Corps.

Bob Doyle: At the time, I was in charge of administration and growth of the trail system at East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), including building trails with trial crews and new property clean-up.  I met (EBCC founder and CEO) Joanna Lennon through another local conservation corps, she told me she was creating a new one to serve West Contra Costa County and Oakland.  She had such a dynamic personality and she was very driven; she pulled together a powerful Board of practitioners and professionals.  At first, the Corps’ focus was on service projects and there wasn’t an educational component.  Towards the end of my tenure on the Board, Joanna’s focus became adding a GED program for people of color and from low income communities.  My role was on the contract side helping to connect with other organizations to hire Corpsmembers for projects at EBRPD.  As I moved up the ranks at EBRPD, I would always encourage others to keep the contract with EBCC.

What was the composition of the original Board?  What was your focus?

BD: The founding Board was a powerful group of people including Walnut Creek State Senator John Nejedly, Robbie Yohai (editor’s note: Robbie remains on the Board to this day), some lawyers, and notably, the National Park Director William Penn Mott.  He would fly home from DC to attend EBCC meetings, and my job was to pick him up at the Oakland Airport.  I was a sponge during those drives, and I learned so much about the national parks under the Reagan Administration; I was like a kid in a candy store listening to his stories! Bill Mott had such generosity of spirit, like a lot of parks people who are committed to service and youth.  It was exciting and altruistic to give our time to serve on the Board, as evidenced by Bill Mott’s attendance.

Everything that’s happening now in our discussions around environmental justice and equity was happening then with that Board and staff.  I enjoyed coming into the [EBCC] building to meet Corpsmembers and hear their stories about bringing home their first paychecks to their mom, meeting those who came from single parent households or had kids of their own.  Their stories were so emotionally compelling.  I was always extremely pleased to see young people of color having a positive experience at the Corps and then getting jobs at EBRPD.  We’ve had many over the years.  In my field, we are always looking at diversifying parks jobs so we can encourage a diversity of park goers who see themselves reflected in the staff.  In order to do that, there has to be a portal, and that’s what EBCC did and what Civicorps does.  All the local Corps are not only providing jobs, but opportunities for training, education and betterment for Corpsmembers as well as their families and community.

There is billions of dollars of work to be done in the state park system.  State parkland hasn’t had the investment it needs, for which Corps type work is perfectly suited. 

Civicorps has enjoyed a longtime partnership with EBRPD for our land conservation job training work.  How did the partnership come to be? 

BD: Recycling was uncommon in parks back then [early-to-mid 80’s].  Our early efforts were to work with the waste management companies to navigate how to do more recycling in parks.  EBCC developed some of the first efforts and provided recycling in the parks.  We started engaging the Corps in three pilot projects in the big heavy use parks, and then that spread to the Corps getting the contracts in other areas.  For example, the City of Hayward, the East Bay Municipal Utility District as well as CalTrans then took on EBCC for contract work.  The recycling program became a whole separate department and ultimately became almost equal to the land contracts department.

We are all keenly aware of the importance of fuels management.  Tell us about the work Corpsmembers do and how it fits into EBRPD’s planning for wildfire mitigation and prevention.

BD: Investment in land stewardship, fuels management and jobs are critical.  We need an army of young people!  Both the State of the California and the Federal government need to provide much more funding if we’re going to make a dent in wildfire mitigation.  In California, we have 100 years of the well-intentioned forest management philosophy “woodsman spare that tree,” and now we’re paying the price.  It is not sustainable to have an ever-growing fire season with only thinning and controlled burns for the forests. We should be investing in people working in forestry, folks who can work a huge variety of jobs on public lands.  The volume of land is overwhelming and the urban interface — cities encroaching on the forests — is only growing.  We need the education, the training and a variety of skills to get people working in forestry in addition to firefighting skills.

Governor Newsom just came out with a plan to invest more deeply in conservation – I applaud the plan, but it’s got to come with money to invest in people to do the work.  There is money for restoration and land acquisition but often not enough money for hiring.  There is billions of dollars of work to be done in the state park system.  State parkland hasn’t had the investment it needs, for which Corps type work is perfectly suited.  If we’re going to get serious about climate change we need a climate army and the California local conservation corps are perfectly positioned to step in.

Looking ahead to the future

If you were to design the ideal conservation career pathway for Corpsmembers with EBPRD and beyond, what would it look like?

BD: The National Park Service has a great program at the UC Merced campus where they secure summer jobs for students at parks like Yosemite and Sequoia.  It’s almost like a union journeyman-apprenticeship pathway.  To be successful, the students have to be interested and motivated, and have to see people like themselves onsite already so they feel welcome.  There are lots of jobs and it’s a priority for the parks that their workforce reflects the communities they serve.

What Civicorps is doing in terms of interviewing skills should help Corpsmembers get comfortable talking to people from all different backgrounds.  It’s important to have the ability to open up a dialogue with all folks, as is true in the world at large right now.  Employees have to have excellent communication skills to interact with many different types of people.  Civicorps is giving its participants a real boost by offering hard job training skills, and should continue to focus on teaching soft professional skills, too.

We understand you’re retiring from EBRPD in the near future. Congratulations!! How will you spend your time in the next phase of life? 

BD: I’m retiring at the end of this year! Unfortunately, I may not be able to have a big in-person party.

I’m planning to spend my time hiking and camping; it’s time for me to enjoy the fruits of my labor and spend time with my family.  I’ll do some consulting too – and I’ll always engage in advocacy.

Speaking of advocacy, what parting words of advice would you like to share?

If we truly are committed to environmental justice and attracting more people of color to parks, we need to provide well maintained, safe and accessible parks.  Civicorps can be a big part of that.

Now is the time to really push for funding and jobs to combat climate change. We have the tools to do that on public lands but we need to scale up dramatically and provide the training and education as part of that.

Civicorps is a great example of successful community based environmental justice.  There will always be challenges both environmental, social and economic, but the path Civicorps is on is the right one for a brighter, more equitable future.

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