YOUTH UNEMPLOYMENT is higher than ever. Funds for preserving parks, wilderness areas and other public resources have been cut. Why not put the kids to work caring for our natural resources?

The House has voted by a wide margin to do just that. This latest reincarnation of the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps would spend $300 million a year to create summer and year-round jobs for young people working on such things as trailing, building and maintenance, reforestation and historical site preservation. Programs like this appeal to congressmen for many reasons--not the least of which is the opportunity to favor an occasional constituent by securing a summertime slot for his offspring. But Congress voted to kill two similar youth conservation programs only two years ago. Does it make sense to revive yet another version?

The answer depends on what you expect from the program and how you plan it. If your goal is to improve the nation's natural resources, and you're willing to provide adequate planning and supervision for the young workers, this can be a sensible approach. Since the youths will presumably be paid much less than professional workers, your dollars will go further--as long as the kids are really doing useful work and not just hanging around.

On the other hand, if your goal is to reduce the hardship of high unemployment, this is not a good approach. Youth unemployment is chronically high, but most of the young people seeking jobs are not in dire straits. The majority of unemployed people in real trouble right now are adults--especially those with families to support. Two years in the woods isn't going to do them much good.

There is one group of youths who are in dire need of help. Unemployment among low-income youths in inner cities often exceeds 50 percent. Without help, most of these teen-agers and young adults will never get a firm grip on the labor market. But such young people need more than a temporary job. They need the combination of basic education and on-the-job training provided by the best of the urban youth job programs--also recently phased out. If you want to help these kids, your money can be much more wisely spent than it will be on a conservation program designed with primarily middle- class youth in mind.

Providing the residential settings and off-hour supervision necessary for young people employed in relatively remote areas is costly. And while they can learn discipline and an appreciation for the outdoors in conservation work, it is not likely to give them the kinds of skills needed for most jobs in the private sector. A well-run program to conserve natural resources could be a sound investment for the future. But it's not a good way to fight unemployment.