The US Needs a New Civilian Conservation Corps

The US Needs a New Civilian Conservation Corps

The US Needs a New Civilian Conservation Corps

FDR’s CCC worked in the 1930s, and it would work today.


David Baake, a Democratic primary candidate for Congress in New Mexico’s Second District, issued a call in July for a new CCC, a “Climate Conservation Corps.” Modeled on the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, Baake proposed putting Americans to work installing energy-efficient technology, retrofitting homes in low-income communities, and taking on “other projects that contribute meaningfully to the fight against climate change, like…reforestation and wetland restoration.”

It is not the first time that a liberal politician has evoked memories of the CCC. The New Deal CCC was wildly popular throughout its nine-year existence, and its artifacts, from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Pacific Coast Trail, are beloved today. It revived broad sections of America’s natural landscape and enriched the lives of millions of young enrollees. Rexford Tugwell, adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, asserted that the CCC “quickly became too popular for criticism.” The CCC disbanded in 1942, overwhelmed by national defense needs and the US entry into World War II. But ever since, policymakers periodically revive the idea of reestablishing it—or at least portions of it.

During the Great Recession of 2008, a few economists, including former secretary of labor Robert Reich, said that this country should pursue a comprehensive jobs program that would create a new Civilian Conservation Corps. Yet, once the Recovery Act passed in 2009, with its infrastructure stimulus, the call for a CCC quieted down. Still, President Obama did put forward a much smaller five-year $1-billion corps-type effort. In his 2012 State of the Union address, he advocated for a Veteran Job Corps program for individuals returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would employ 20,000 veterans and provide visitor programs, restore habitat, protect cultural resources, eradicate invasive species, and operate park facilities. But the presidential election was coming up, and in a party-line vote, Republicans rejected the more modest corps proposal.

Three years later, Senator Bernie Sanders, not yet running for the Democratic presidential nomination, proposed a $1 trillion jobs bill, jam-packed with infrastructure proposals for roads, bridges, transit systems, wastewater treatment plants, airports, seaports, dams, levees, and other brick-and-mortar projects. Once again, the suggestion of a CCC approach appeared within Sanders’s proposal, with a call for $15 billion over five years to boost our National Park system. This was bigger than what anyone in the Obama administration had proposed, but still short of a sweeping CCC-style jobs-and-environment program.

Looking back at the original CCC’s lifespan (1933–42), it’s clear that many of the most admirable aspects of the program could be imitated today. The New Deal effort put 3 million young men—mostly aged 18–26—to work. They planted 3.5 billion trees, established more than 700 new state parks, improved or constructed over 90,000 acres of campgrounds, helped complete the Appalachian and Pacific Coast hiking trails, assembled 40,000 bridges, built 4,500 rustic cabins and hiking shelters, and created “shelterbelts” of trees to mitigate the impact of the devastating Dust Bowl across the Great Plains.

Today there are similar tasks waiting to be addressed. The National Park Service, for example, has a backlog of about $11 billion in deferred maintenance, much of it involving straightforward projects like campgrounds, trails, wastewater systems, paved and unpaved roads, and rustic buildings. The National Wildlife Refuge System has a list of delayed projects that would officially cost $1.4 billion (repairs to roads, trails, dams, levees, and wetland impoundments), but the real price tag is likely more than twice that. The USDA Forest Service has an estimated maintenance list that requires about $5.5 billion. And the Bureau of Land Management needs about $800 million for pending field projects.

These are relatively simple repairs and improvements—as long as funding and labor are made available. These are also needs that the American public overwhelmingly identifies with and supports. Regular surveys from the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Fish & Wildlife Service, many state and local park agencies, and the outdoor industry itself all confirm that the American public overwhelmingly wants access, investment, and improvements for these natural environments and green spaces.

Today there are environmental needs that are similar to those addressed by the CCC yet stretch beyond the traditional CCC concept. These include the restoration and creation of riparian and wildlife corridors as well as much-needed city parks. A new CCC could etch living green spaces into neglected cityscapes, and build restorative places for urban communities to rest and to play. The combination of city parks and small community gardens could be a special urban emphasis of a revived CCC. Urban efforts might also take a page from candidate Baake’s call, and include a program to install energy-saving technologies, solar power, and insulation in low-income communities.

Many tasks that were of minor concern to the old CCC are more urgent now, especially in light of sea-level rise and hurricane threats. Along the East and Gulf Coasts, there is a desperate need to defend barrier islands, stabilize sand dunes, and restore coastal and bay grasses, oyster beds, salt marshes, and mangroves.

Of course, given what we’ve learned over the last 75 years, some parts of the old CCC would not—and should not—be replicated today. There were ecological blunders: Many big projects were highly intrusive and damaged wilderness areas, and some plantings had disastrous consequences. For instance, kudzu, known as “the vine that ate the South,” was spread by the CCC as a hillside stabilizer. But today the program’s worst ecological mistakes could be easily avoided by working in consultation with conservationists and scientists. The New Deal program was also segregated, exclusively male, and run like a military organization. None of these three CCC characteristics would be tolerated now.

Despite its flaws, the original CCC prepared young men for meaningful, well-paying jobs. Remedial education, as part of the original CCC, was slow to catch on, but by 1937, the government had hired 1,800 education advisers to run voluntary night classes. And, starting in 1933, eight “local experienced men” (LEMs) were assigned to each CCC camp in the country, tapping the area’s unemployed but skilled laborers to show the participants how to work (teaching skills including landscaping, machine repair, carpentry, and stone masonry). The CCC employed over 24,000 LEMs.

Today a new CCC could use vocational training to serve as preparation for quality union jobs. This could help create the skills needed for a green-infrastructure effort. Projects would not only demand the talents of vocational educators and the equivalent of LEMs (perhaps LEPs—locally experienced people) but also those of conservation biologists, wildlife managers, foresters, landscape architects, and park planners.

The linking of a modern CCC to union apprenticeship programs and job opportunities could do much to counter the appeal of large-scale extractive economic projects among some sections of organized labor. It is, nevertheless, important to be aware that labor support for any new CCC is not necessarily automatic.

Even during the Great Depression, in 1933, unions were hostile to the idea of the CCC. They viewed the proposal as a way to circumvent contractual worker rights and, in an era of fascist mass mobilization, expressed concerns that it would lead to “militarized labor.” The unions were eventually won over, but only after President Roosevelt convinced them that the CCC would only be used in “simple work” and would not interfere with “normal employment,” and selected two union officials from the International Association of Machinists, Robert Fechner and his assistant, James McEntee, to run the CCC.

There is another often neglected, positive side of the original CCC that merits consideration given today’s regional politics and red/blue divide. Many rural communities that initially opposed the location of CCC camps in their vicinity eventually embraced the program. People even began requesting that new CCC camps be located in rural areas, specifically near small towns. Outside the South, the CCC projects often took place in rural areas where resistance to the projects, and the New Deal itself, lessened as those enterprises matured. According to the National Park Service’s official history of the CCC, in the hard-fought 1936 election campaign, “67 per cent of all registered Republicans favored [the CCC’s] continuation.”

The hiking trails, campgrounds, scenic roads, visitor centers, park lodges, and other tourist amenities reinforced the whole process. These changed how local residents thought about nature, conservation, and their own surroundings.

The Trump administration’s false promises regarding nationwide infrastructure should push people to imagine alternatives. A discussion of infrastructure needs to start with the people who see what’s necessary—local communities, labor, climate-change activists, engaged naturalists, and those involved in environmental justice.

We should also look to the state-based, local, and nongovernmental projects that emulate at least slices of the CCC experience to see what works. The Youth Conservation Corps has been connected to the Park Service since the 1970s; projects in California, Iowa, Minnesota, Texas, Vermont, and Washington have seen some success; city-based efforts in Detroit, Los Angeles, and elsewhere have shown promise. Simultaneously, the Student Conservation Association has been operating for decades, regularly placing around 4,000 young people every year in conservation internships and summer crews in service to the land. These are all efforts and experiences that build a potential base of valuable experience for a broader and more comprehensive project.

It is no accident that FDR, as governor of New York, not as president, launched a CCC-like program in 1931 called the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, which immediately created 10,000 conservation-related jobs, mostly in forestry, for out-of-work New Yorkers. By the end of 1932, right after the national election and before Roosevelt was inaugurated, the program was aiding 25,000 enrollees. It is local experience that led to a national program.

Hoping for a new nationwide CCC may seem optimistic under the current Republican Congress, but inventive proposals are essential now as we rebuild political movements and set our priorities for the future. Perhaps best of all, the CCC model, with a balance of ecological restoration and labor development, is not some fantasy program; it is part of our own underappreciated American history. It’s high time we revisit the project.

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