Across the entire landscape gradient ecological restoration projects are needed to optimize ecosystem services. As the world urbanizes there is greater interest in socio-ecological systems research. Conservation jobs, sometimes called ‘green jobs’, include a diverse network of programs at federal, state or local level and typically combine community service and workforce development. Work activity, once focused in more rural landscapes, now includes urban settings. Landscape restoration is often labor intensive, and green jobs offer youth opportunities for land care and employment training. In addition to landscape enhancement, there may be personal and social benefits associated with green jobs. The objective of this study was to evaluate human health outcomes for young adults working in landscape restoration. The study cohort numbered nearly 300 AmeriCorps members serving on small crews for an entire year (sponsored by WA Department of Ecology), and were dispersed across Washington State (USA) to engage in conservation projects in rural to urban landscapes. This study evaluated the correlations between young adult conservation workers’ stress, personal effectiveness, and nature experience using quantitative and qualitative social science methods. Pre- and post-test surveys, using measures of perceived stress, health dimensions, and personal resiliency, were further informed by mid-year, field-based interviews.
Nearly 40 years of research indicates a wide range of human health benefits associated with both passive and active nearby nature experiences (reviewed at Green Cities: Good Health web site). Previously validated measures were selected and administered at the beginning and end of a service year. Overall, the young adults expressed fatigue from the physical work but were quite healthy when compared to national benchmarks. They indicated a statistically significant reduction in perceived stress. This is an important finding as chronic stress has secondary impacts on health, such as compromised immune response and declining mental health. Another finding was an increase in social functioning, perhaps the result of crew boss mentoring and crew comraderie. Social cohesion is generally associated with more positive physiological health conditions. Qualitative analysis revealed six satisfactions themes: professional interests and achievement, communication and teamwork, sensory experiences, overcoming challenges and learning new skills, ecosystems knowledge, and life transformations. Conservation workers not only do good for the environment, but may gain or sustain health benefits. Conclusions address the importance of expanding such work opportunities to a more diverse cohort and young people that are less physically capable but equally (or perhaps more) in need of health interventions.