Faced with millions of Americans out of work, including an army of roughly 154,000 homeless military veterans seeking shelter every night, President Obama and Congress should quickly revive one of the most successful government actions during the Great Depression. That action was creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which the Roosevelt administration convinced Congress to support within weeks of FDR taking office in 1933. Over the next several years, the CCC hired more than three million young men to plant three billion trees in over-logged forests, repair 40 million acres of soil-eroded farmlands and create 800 state parks, according to the US Forest Service web site.
While billions of dollars are being promised to bail out banks and Wall Street firms nearly sunk by reckless investments, the Obama administration should make better use of lessons to be learned from studying how America climbed out of the last big fiscal collapse that sank the national economy. “Today, we drive on roads laid out by the Works Progress Administration, drop off our children and pick up books at schools and libraries built by the Public Works Administration, and even drink water flowing from reservoirs constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority,” among other public services provided by workers funded by the federal government in the 1930s, notes author Neil M. Maher in Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement.
Indeed, he argues, the CCC was the pioneer project in lifting a bankrupt, dispirited America by its bootstraps. “The immediate popularity of the CCC … helped the new president [Roosevelt] to jump-start the New Deal,” writes Maher, a history professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology-Rutgers University. “During the Great Depression, the CCC continually linked the outdoor labor performed on its conservation projects to an increased sense of national pride.” Another legacy was that many CCC participants got hooked on environmental causes, “thousands of whom took jobs with conservation agencies and became actively involved in a host of environmental groups across the country.”
Modeled on a conservation program Roosevelt had championed as governor of New York, the CCC tackled big issues, from reclaiming Dust Bowl farmlands and fighting forest fires to providing a new start for jobless veterans.
“Several thousand World War I veterans had taken part in the ‘Bonus Army’ marches on Washington in 1932 and 1933. The earlier march in Hoover’s administration was dispersed by the U.S. Army, while the latter march was dispersed by FDR by offering to allow them to enroll in the CCC,” the Forest Service notes. Nearly 250,000 veterans enrolled alongside more than 2 million younger men, aged 17 to 28, who were guided by military officers and woodsmen recruited from the surrounding area of the hundreds of CCC work camps, located in every state. About 8,500 women were also enrolled in the program.
Vital work that a revived CCC could do includes: clean up abandoned industrial waste areas, many of which are in public parklands and at former and current military bases; restore and reforest blighted mountaintop mining areas; retrofit government buildings, including schools, with solar panels and windmills to generate electricity; create a network of marked bicycle paths along city streets, rural roads, greenways and unused railroad corridors; restore or create greenway wildlife corridors along streams and rivers; clean up polluted streams and rivers and coastal areas.
Experience in working on such vital projects would provide a trained workforce for the green economy that President Obama and others are promoting.
A current program that can provide additional ideas is the California Conservation Corps, created in 1976 along the lines of the original CCC. It hires 3,300 young men and women annually at the minimum wage. The state agency does projects “for more than 250 local, state and federal agencies each year,” the California CCC web site states. Its members are trained as emergency responders and clean up crews at forest fires, floods, earthquakes, oil spills. They also maintain hiking trails and a nursery that has produced more than 3 million trees for reforestation and stream bank restoration. “Many recruits start out as unemployed high school dropouts and end up moving on to jobs in the California Department of Fish and Game, state and national parks, and forestry and fire departments,” the San Francisco Chronicle noted in a recent article.
Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposal early this year to close the agency to save $17 million as he faced a $40 billion state deficit stirred a wave of public protest; the funding was restored by the state legislature. "Not only did we get restored, but with all the [federal] stimulus money, I see us expanding," Jimmy Camp, communications director for the Conservation Corps, told the Chronicle. "They are coming to us and really looking to put some of that stimulus money into projects for us.”
Many in California saw a ready-made opportunity for the federal stimulus fund to invest in conservation projects. “Indeed, far from being cut, the corps should be a model for other states,” the Redding (CA) Record Searchlight stated in an editorial.
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