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Young workers help Indiana parks during cutbacks

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A stimulus-funded jobs program that gives young Indiana residents summer work is helping keep the state's parks shipshape by providing workers during a period of budget cuts, park officials say.

At Pokagon State Park in far northeastern Indiana, the 56 young men and women hired through the Young Hoosiers Conservation Corps are improving park trails, painting buildings, manning the gatehouse and doing other work, property manager Ted Bohman said.

With budget cuts having reduced the park's seasonal work force from the 40 normally hired to 15, he said the young workers are taking up some of the slack.

"It came at the right time," Bohman said Monday, referring to the federal money. "And it's being used in a way that not only enhances the park but also gives these kids an opportunity to learn something they otherwise wouldn't have."

Indiana got $24 million in stimulus funding split between 2009 and 2010 to hire about 2,000 young people for summer jobs that pay $8.50 per hour and last about 16 weeks. Some hired as supervisors will earn $9.50 per hour over 18 to 24 weeks. To qualify, people must be 18 to 24 years old.

Since Indiana was awarded the money last year, Gov. Mitch Daniels has cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state budget because the recession has reduced state revenue. State agencies are under orders to cut spending by 15 percent for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Indiana Department of Natural Resources spokesman Phil Bloom said the agency had hired about 1,000 seasonal workers at the peak of the summer season in past years. But because of the budget restrictions this year, it's capped those summer jobs at 548 positions.

He said the young workers hired by the DNR — 1,665 as of Monday — will help the seasonal workers with important maintenance work at many of the state's 24 state parks and dozens of other properties.

"It definitely helped, and it's added to projects that even that core group of summer intermittent may not have been able to get to even under normal circumstances," Bloom said.

Last year, those projects included the removal of about 3,000 acres of nonnative plants such as Asian honeysuckle, a bush that's crowding out native plants. The young workers also renovated 380 buildings and 50 historic buildings owned by the DNR, built 30 miles of new trails and upgraded 500 miles of existing trails.

The Indiana Department of Workforce Development is administering the Young Hoosiers work program. Agency spokesman Marc Lotter said no decision has been made on whether the program will continue next year, when no stimulus money will be available.

At southern Indiana's Falls of the Ohio State Park, eight Young Hoosiers workers have been hired so far for the summer, park manager Steve Knowles said. He said the park has three seasonal workers, one less than last year.

The young workers are helping the park's eight full-time staff with daily maintenance and also providing an interpreter for a cabin that's a re-creation of the one Revolutionary War hero Gen. George Rogers Clark built near the Ohio River in 1803.

"I probably would have had a really tough time staffing the Clark cabin this year without them, and our flower beds probably wouldn't look as nice," Knowles said.

Last year, the Young Hoosiers program covered only DNR properties. This year, the state Department of Transportation also is hiring summer workers under the program. As of Monday, INDOT had signed up 435 people for the 500 openings, spokesman Will Wingfield said.

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