AmeriCorps, a national service project launched by President Clinton in September, has splashed down in Douglas County's wetlands.
As time was running out on his seasonal job last summer, Craig Johnson's next career move was a frustrating uncertainty.
"In our field, you've got to have a job to get experience and experience to get a job," said Johnson, a 24-year-old biologist who graduated from Emporia State University in 1993.
And although he was working in his field at the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks' Melvern Wildlife Area, he said, "What I was hearing was that summer work didn't really count as experience."
Today, he's getting that experience in AmeriCorps, the $360 million national service program launched by President Clinton in September. Johnson is one of four volunteers working in Douglas County on a five-year project to inventory the state's wetlands and riparian areas, or banks of waterways.
The volunteers, recent college graduates with degrees in biology and park resource management, are charting county wetlands by studying aerial photographs and maps, plus making on-site visits.
Kevin Feleay, a 25-year-old Kansas State University graduate in biology, was the first AmeriCorps volunteer to arrive in Douglas County. Feleay, who started working on the project in October, has been joined by Johnson, Arlen Flax, 24, and Cody Lind, 30.
Each volunteer made a one-year commitment to AmeriCorps and has the option of serving a second term. In return, each receives a $12,000 stipend for living expenses and a $4,275 educational award that can be used for college, job training or repayment of student loans.
The four, who are among 20,000 participants in AmeriCorps, are working in the federal agriculture department's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office, 3010 Four Wheel Drive.
Douglas Gahn, NRCS district conservationalist, said the project would give farmers who participate in federal land conservation programs a better idea "if and where and what type of wetlands they may have on their land."
Gahn and project members said the goal was not to snatch productive land away from farmers.
"The rule of thumb is that if you can drive a tractor through it, you can farm it," Johnson said. "You just can't drain it."
The riparian study, Gahn said, will help local conservationalists protect and enhance banks of waterways.
Feleay said that in addition to working on the inventory, volunteers were involved in training and community service work like environmental education programs for youths.
All the while, volunteers will be gaining career footholds and the opportunity to work on a meaningful project.
"Most of Kansas' wetlands have been drained," Johnson said. "It'd be nice to look back and say you helped protect what's left. It'd also be nice to be sitting in a big, cushy job and look back and say this helped you get there."