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Startup helps get displaced workers hired in outdoor jobs

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Danielle Johnson doesn’t know what she’d be doing to earn an income right now if it weren’t for a recent outdoors startup to get those displaced by COVID-19 back into the workforce swing of axes and hazel hoes.

As unemployment across the country reaches highs not seen in nearly 100 years since the Great Depression, including a record-high 17.5% in Buncombe County, one group is taking a cue from the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put many people back to work during the 1930s with a mass movement of recreational infrastructure building.

The Carolina Climbers Coalition, a nonprofit now in its 25th year of protecting, preserving and enhancing rock climbing opportunities in North and South Carolina, has recently launched C4 — the Carolina Climbing Conservation Corp — a hired crew of people who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 crisis, to build and maintain trails.

Johnson, 27, an A.C. Reynolds High graduate, had been working as a rocking climbing, backpacking and whitewater instructor for North Carolina Outward Bound when the coronavirus hit Western North Carolina and the famed outdoor instructional center shut down all its programming.

For the past month, Johnson has been part of an eight-person trail construction and maintenance crew working for $25 an hour, three days a week, with pick axes, shovels, hazel hoes, rock movers and all other array of hand-held equipment to do the buggy, sweaty, back-breaking work of building and improving rock climbing and hiking trails in North and South Carolina.

“Without C4 I think it’s likely I’d be still be on unemployment and patching together different kinds of part-time work,” Johnson said June 9 from the field site where she is building the Pumpkintown Trail in Table Rock State Park near Pickens, S.C.

“It’s very manual work. It varies based on the site we’ve worked at – some of our climbing sites, we’ve been improving an existing trail, improving drainage system, widening trail, building steps out of locust logs and using big stones to improve the safety of the trail,” she said.

LOOKING TO THE TRAILBUILDERS OF THE PAST FOR

INSPIRATION

The C4 was modeled after the CCC from the Great Depression era, said Carolina Climbers executive director Mike Reardon.

“Our initial thinking with COVID-19 happening, is ‘What’s a way we can help our community?'” he said. “There are people who love the outdoors, trail workers, people who want to give back. This way we can help them, and at the same time create an opportunity to build some of our climbing infrastructure that’s needed right now.”

“Most of WNC’s trails, bridges, cabins, our recreation infrastructure was originally built by (Depression era) CCC,” he added.

The C4 trail work has all been funded through private donations or businesses, starting with an initial $5,000 allocated by the Carolina Climbers Coalition, with a goal of raising $25,000.

Support has come from local and national businesses including Sierra Nevada in Mills River; Trango, Egrets, Tenaya Climbing, a national climbing gear manufacturer; Royal Landscape Services of Charlotte; and Beanstalk Builders in Morganton.

“These are exceptionally difficult times,” said Tom Caldwell, CCC president. “This is when we need to stand even stronger to support our climbing community and access, as well as invest in the future of climbing through sustainable infrastructure.”

One of the criteria for joining the C4 crew is to be a displaced worker due to COVID-19, Reardon said. Some of the crew members previously worked as an outdoor gear representative, an artist, a realtor and a bartender, all in the Asheville area.

The CCC contracts the C4 crew, provides training and tools for cutting trails while maintaining CDC-recommended COVID-19 safety guidelines.

“We limit groups to six workers at a time. We have a tool cache with hand sanitizer. Workers use one tool throughout the day and then sanitize it,” Reardon said. “All day, they are required to have a mask on them, and if they are within 6 feet of one another, they are required to wear the mask.”

So far the group has worked on trails at Big Rock, near Pickens, S.C., Melrose Mountain in Tryon, Rocky Fork State Park in Tennessee, and Reardon said they are in negotiations with the village of Chimney Rock to work on a project in the Hickory Nut Gorge and can always work on a boulder field the CCC owns at Rumbling Bald, adjacent to Chimney Rock State Park property.

“We’re going to keep people employed as long as we can make the funds last,” Reardon said.

“I think C4 is really awesome. For me personally, it’s keeping me employed, giving me new skills, allowing me to live in this area and do work similar to my work at Outward Bound,” Johnson said.

“And in terms of what this is doing for our community during COVID, I think this initiative is contributing to the personal lives of climbers, keeping people employed, and continuing to create access to climbing in this region,” she said.

“We’re talking about action steps to outreach to a diverse range of communities and programs and how they can access local climbing. The CCC is paying attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and having many conversations … about expanding the word ‘access.'”

WANT TO HELP?

Donate to the C4 program at carolinaclimbers.org/c4 or become a member at carolinaclimbers.org/join.

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