Herald-Leader Editorial

Honor our vets with jobs bill; reforesting Appalachia could be on shovel-ready project

reforesting appalachia could be one of the shovel-ready projects

September 16, 2012 

Coal

University of Kentucky professor Chris Barton stood by four-year-old trees planted at a former surface mine near Pikeville. The site was a pilot project for the Green Forests Work program that could help Congress put unemployed veterans to work.

CHARLES BERTRAM | STAFF

About 3,000 Kentuckians who served in the military during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have come home to no job.

A bipartisan bill that was in the spotlight last week would provide $1 billion to help put many of the nation's 720,000 unemployed veterans to work.

That number includes 225,000 post-9/11 vets, many of whom served multiple tours of duty.

The Veterans Job Corps Act of 2012 would provide grants to train and employ vets as first-responders and in conservation, historic preservation and resource management — a Civilian Conservation Corps for a new generation.

Kentucky's congressional delegation should support this legislation and not just because it's the honorable thing to do. Kentucky and the rest of Appalachia offer more than a million acres where veterans could restart their civilian lives by restoring ancient forests and clean water.

A nonprofit based at the University of Kentucky has proposed a shovel-ready program that could employ 2,000 people. An offshoot of research by scientists at UK and other universities, Green Forests Work could create short-term jobs and a long-term economic base in forest resources and tourism for coalfield communities from Pennsylvania to Tennessee.

Already the coal industry, government regulators and volunteers have helped scientists demonstrate large-scale success in growing native trees on the biologically bereft grasslands left by mining.

This labor-intensive undertaking begins with de-compacting the concrete-like soil. It would utilize equipment and skills idled by coal industry layoffs and the declining demand for coal. The Appalachian Regional Commission has given the project a vote of confidence by funding some field staff. Backers of the reforestation project had hoped for funding in 2009 through energy legislation that fizzled.

Jobs for vets is another chance, if Republicans let it move. Kentucky's Sen. Rand Paul held it up to demand that Pakistan release a prisoner who helped the U.S. find Osama bin Laden. Other Republicans had more practical objections, including that the jobs would be temporary and the bill did not go through committee.

An unemployed vet would be happy to have a two- or three-year job that could be a springboard to a career.

We hope that by the time you read this, the Senate will have approved the program, setting the stage for House action if not before the upcoming recess, after the election.

The unemployment rate last year for male non-veterans in the 18 to 24 age group was 17.6 percent, which is bad. For young men in this age group who put their lives on the line by volunteering for duty, unemployment was 29.1 percent, which is shameful.

The unemployment rate for post-9/11 vets of all ages and both genders has declined from 12 percent last year to just under 11 percent. That's still worse than the rate for non-vets. It's also no way for a grateful nation to treat its military veterans.

The Veterans Job Corps won't worsen the deficit. The bill pays for itself by pressuring deadbeats to cough up more than $500 million in back taxes or lose their passports and by reducing payments to some Medicare providers and suppliers.

Paul, R-Bowling Green, was delaying action on the jobs bill by holding out for a cutoff of aid to Pakistan. After attacks on U.S. embassies, he broadened his amendment to cut off aid to Libya and Egypt.

There's nothing wrong with Paul pushing for the release of Dr. Shakil Afridi, who helped find bin Laden. But the senator would probably be more effective using his influence in quieter, diplomatic channels.

Also, Paul's eagerness for the U.S. to surrender its economic leverage over governments in strategic hot spots would leave nothing but military force and persuasion to protect our interests in a dangerous world.

Instead of obstructing, Kentucky's Republicans, especially Rep. Hal Rogers, who represents the Appalachian coalfield, should be making sure that reforesting Appalachia is part of the jobs plan.

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