A Green New Deal Needs a 21st-Century Civilian Conservation Corps

From 1933 to 1942, FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps put more than 3 million jobless young people to work on nature restoration projects all across the country. It was possibly the most popular of all the New Deal programs and a spectacular conservation success — one that a Green New Deal can replicate.

A Civilian Conservation Corps enrollee planting a tree circa 1938. (Fotosearch / Getty Images).

The familiar alphabet-soup of job programs launched by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s addressed the challenges and desperation of the times. With unemployment at 25 percent and a country in shock, those efforts met the needs of millions of distraught Americans. Among these undertakings, none was perfect; each was flawed, yet almost all enjoyed popular support.

Of all these New Deal programs, historians have viewed the the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as, probably, the most popular.

Almost every subsequent proposal for a non-military jobs program, including many ideas floated over the years by Senator Bernie Sanders, harken back to those FDR programs. In January 2015, Sanders proposed a five-year trillion-dollar jobs bill packed with proposals for roads, bridges, transit systems, wastewater treatment, airports, seaports, and more. A CCC-type approach appeared embedded within the Sanders proposal, with $15 billion over five years for our National Park System — a proposal big for the time, but short of a sweeping CCC-type jobs-and-environment program. Still, Sanders revealed a hint of what was to come.

In the years following the 2016 election, proposals for a “Green New Deal” started to gain traction in the United States. One major sign of this was a pair of Congressional resolutions — HR 109 and S. Res. 59, the “Green New Deal Resolutions,” — that were sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) beginning in February 2019. Those parallel proposals, plus the more specific details expounded by Sanders, aimed at combating climate change and economic inequality simultaneously.

The Sanders campaign’s version of a Green New Deal was more detailed in highlighting the CCC experience as one worthy of emulation. In fact, the senator was pushing for an impressive CCC revival. Bernie Sanders speaks to part of his approach to a Green New Deal:

We will invest $171 billion in reauthorizing and expanding the CCC to provide good-paying jobs building green infrastructure, planting billions of trees and other native species, preventing flood and soil erosion, rebuilding wetlands and coral, cleaning up plastic pollution, constructing and maintaining accessible paths, trails, and fire breaks; rehabilitating and removing abandoned structures, and eradicating invasive species and flora disease; and other natural methods of carbon pollution sequestration. We must take these natural solutions seriously as an important part of our strategy to solve the climate crisis.

Sanders has not been alone among senators in calling for a new CCC.  In addition to Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), lead sponsor of the Senate effort for Green New Deal legislation, there have been others. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) – all among the Green New Deal cosponsors — have recently cited the CCC to confront some of our combined employment and environment needs.

Meanwhile, US House members aplenty have been dropping references to the CCC as America considers options for a post-COVID-19 future. In mid-June, Congressman Joe Neguse (D-CO) introduced legislation — the 21st Century Conservation Corps for Our Health and Our Jobs Act — to stimulate local “conservation corps,” address maintenance backlogs in the National Park Service and Forest Service, and invest in landscape-scale projects for forest health and the reduction of catastrophic wildfires.

The bill – now with a hundred cosponsors – is a mixed bag, but clearly some cosponsors want to associate it with the successful CCC. This illustrates how far Democrats are currently willing to reach into this corner of the environment.

The COVID-19 health and economic crisis has only amplified the discussion of what jobs, especially “green” jobs, might look like once we crawl out of this abyss. Predictions and proposals abound. References to FDR and New Deal–sized solutions will proliferate, and we should be aware of the outsized and outdoor implications.

The Road to the Civilian Conservation Corps

Franklin Delano Roosevelt self-identified as a forester. As New York governor, he launched a natural resources jobs program in 1931 called the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA), which quickly 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 FDR was inaugurated, the TERA program was already putting 25,000 male enrollees to work.

FDR used TERA as a prototype for the future CCC. Clearly a parallel national program was workable, and he immediately proposed putting about 250,000 young men to work by the first summer of his administration to “conserve our precious natural resources.” Within weeks of his inauguration, FDR made his request to a Democratic-majority Congress for a Civilian Conservation Corps.

In 1933, however, unions were openly opposed to the idea, viewing it as a way to circumvent contractual worker rights. In an era of fascist mobilization, unions expressed concerns that a CCC could lead to “militarized labor.”

Union testimonies during joint hearings before the Senate and House committees were hostile to the CCC. Besides the “militarized” argument, labor argued that the enrollees would displace free laborers and that the proposed compensation ($1 a day) would depress wages for workers not on relief.

The unions were eventually won over, but only after they were convinced that the CCC would “be used in simple work, not interfering with normal employment,” according to FDR, and when two respected labor union officials (both from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers [IAM]) were selected to run the CCC. These were two experienced union railroaders: Robert Fechner, a general vice president of the IAM and James McEntee, a fellow IAM leader brought on as CCC executive assistant director.

The act establishing the CCC had two purposes: restoring the country’s depleted natural resources and finding immediate and useful conservation work for millions of unemployed young men. Through its nine-year existence, this New Deal effort put an impressive three million young men, mostly ages 17–26, to work.

Congress passed the CCC legislation a mere ten days after FDR made his request. By July 1, there were an astounding 1,463 working camps across the country with 250,000 young enrollees, 28,000 veterans, 14,000 Native Americans, and 25,000 experienced and skilled local hires who were trainers or administrators.

Each enrollee working on conservation projects was provided shelter, clothing, food, together with a modest stipend, most of which had to be sent home to the enrollee’s family. The enrollment period was for six months, with options for renewal.

Among its remarkable accomplishments, the CCC, between 1933 and 1942, created more than eight hundred new state parks, improved or created over 90,000 acres of campgrounds, constructed over 142,000 miles of foot and horse trails (including large parts of the Appalachian and Pacific Coast hiking trails), built more than 40,000 bridges, constructed 4,500 rustic cabins and hiking shelters, strung over 89,000 miles of telephone wiring, built 168 emergency landing fields, stocked almost 1 billion fish, and planted 2.3 billion trees (more, when combined with trees planted with the WPA in “shelterbelts” to fight the Dust Bowl across the Great Plains).

It is no wonder that the CCC is often regarded as the most-successful of FDR’s endeavors.[1]

Five Problems With the Old CCC

Still, it would be instructive to touch on five problems that marred the CCC, no matter how outwardly popular it was. Acknowledging these problems at the outset would help to avoid them in the future.

  1. Men — The CCC was for young men. There were no CCC camps for women, although some experiments existed with support from Eleanor Roosevelt and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. These concentrated on more stereotyped domestic skills that could help families survive the Depression. The effort never exceeded 8,500 enrollees and was dropped by late 1937.
  2. Segregation — At the start of the CCC, units were racially integrated. But this ended as indignant Southern Democrats insisted on enforced segregation. There was pushback, but pro-segregation compliance prevailed, though with equal pay, food, and housing for the quarter million African-American enrollees. While black participation roughly matched the black proportion in the population, it did not match larger black unemployment. Moreover, young black men usually failed to attain positions of real authority in their CCC units, unless they were educated “professionals.”
  3. Military — The original CCC had a military flavor, even calling the individual units “companies.” Upon assignment, the young men lived in World War I surplus pyramid tent frames or simple wooden barracks. The camp commander was usually a career military officer or, later, a reserve officer. Early on, noncommissioned officers (NCOs) drawn from regular military units, functioned as first sergeant, supply sergeant, and mess sergeant. Fortunately, the NCOs were soon replaced by “local experienced men” (LEMs), civilians trained to take over the duties that NCOs had held.
  4. Eco-problems — There were also outstanding ecological blunders that plagued the CCC. These mistakes included projects that were highly intrusive in wilderness areas, plantings of nonindigenous species in inexplicable straight rows that had disastrous consequences (for example, kudzu, “the vine that ate the South,” was used by the CCC as a “hillside stabilizer”), excessive insect eradication, and inappropriate predator and rodent control. The failure to blend forest, soil, wildlife, and water conservation led to unfortunate results. Today such problems are blamed on “specialists stuck in their silos,” but in the 1930s it was simply a lack of communication and conservation experience–sharing, damaging the CCC’s effectiveness.
  5. Rural/Interior — The historic CCC involved many urban young men working mostly in rural areas, often in the interior of the country. It was blind to parallel conservation needs in urban areas.

Criticism, of course, came from many quarters. Not only were many Southern Democratic officials reluctant to support the CCC effort, others on the Left and the Right were decidedly unfriendly. Norman Thomas, Socialist Party leader, claimed that “[Corps] work camps fit into the physiology of a fascist … state.” Simultaneously, but from the Right, the CCC project was viewed as a Bolshevik threat to America. Several conservative newspapers labeled the CCC camps “hotbeds of radicalism.”

A New Start?

If we were to revive an improved CCC, we might envision three key modern branches: rural, urban, and coastal. The first, rural-oriented, might emphasize those traditional parks, refuges, and forests that so characterized the original CCC. This is what Bernie Sanders seemed to have in mind in 2015, with his national park orientation. But that was just the start.

One need only review the current backlog of more than $20 billion for “operations and maintenance” (O&M) for the National Park Service, the National Wildlife Refuge System, the US Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management to appreciate what basic conservation requirements are urgently needed for federal lands alone. (State park and wildlife agencies could add tens of billions of dollars more in deferred maintenance.)

Beyond that, there are broad, landscape, big-picture concerns. These include stopping the loss of 10,000-year-old virgin grasslands in the northern Great Plains and removing encroaching juniper from greater sage-grouse habitat on federal lands in the interior West.

An Urban-Oriented New CCC

An urban branch is full of potential. Opportunities would go beyond the original state parks created by the CCC and advocate much-needed city parks, living green spaces etched from the ruins of abandoned and neglected city spaces, and envisioning restorative places for urban communities to rest and play.

An urban branch could also advance ambitious new projects focused on vacant-lot mini-reclamation, restoring spaces with flowers, shrubs, paths, and benches as well as units with community gardens. Native tree-planting at these mini-lots and along streets could improve air-quality, provide serious cooling for streets and neighborhoods in the age of climate change, and produce the general sense of well-being that comes with proximity to nature.

An urban branch — in harmony with a Green New Deal theme — might expand to install park and neighborhood solar power and all-important insulation, starting with public buildings from court houses to post offices.

Where the original CCC installed many thousands of miles of rural telephone wire, a corollary today might be the connection of public Wi-Fi in cities, initially at hot-spot parks. An enriched program with job opportunities to affirm Internet access as a basic right, would build the service as an essential public utility. This could help lead to an apprentice-like program with industrial and construction unions to provide a transition to meaningful, long-term, and well-paying work.

Finally, applying “railbanking” — under the National Trails System Act — to “bank” old rail corridors for future transit use is another potential urban branch CCC function. This enhances the urban-suburban-rural connection, and the rail route is repurposed for other, potentially temporary, uses: walking, bicycling, jogging, nature-trail, and even bridle paths.

In short, these unique municipal tasks are begging to be fulfilled by a body like an urban branch of a new CCC.

A Coastal-Oriented New CCC

The third new branch of the CCC might have a coastal emphasis, especially in an era of sea-level rise and hurricane threats. Along the East and Gulf Coast alone, there are dire needs to protect barrier islands, stabilize and revegetate associated sand dunes, and restore coastal and bay grasses, oyster beds, salt marshes, and mangroves.

As previously mentioned, national parks (e.g., ten of our National Seashores) and National Wildlife Refuges along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts have operations and maintenance (O&M) backlogs that are just waiting to be resolved. Coastal ecological needs are unique and demanding today, in the age of climate change and sea-level rise.

Moreover, healthy coastal wetlands can trap harmful greenhouse gases that otherwise end up in the atmosphere. Wetlands also help protect communities from floods and storms, improve water quality, and support recreational and commercial fisheries.

The recovery of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) alone is fundamental. SAV can improve water quality, serve as habitat for vulnerable young fish and crabs, and provide food for migrating waterfowl. The restoration of related oyster beds — a task that was part of the historic WPA and CCC function in multiple places — needs to be revisited. Both the balance of bay-life and the maintenance of a unique industry, and human community, require it.

Some portion of the O&M backlog for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) could be tackled by the coastal branch of a modern-day CCC. Likewise, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has many billions of dollars of backlogged coastal projects that could be reassigned or shared with a new CCC involving barrier-beach, estuary, and dredge-island (seabird nesting) functions.

Finally, we must consider the most obvious coastal mission: plastic pollution. The issue is so large that it could easily devour the entire budget of a coastal branch of the CCC. With increasing and threatening plastic production, poor levels of recycling, and insufficient waste management, this impacts sea turtles, whales, seabirds, fish, coral, and other marine life.

All the more important is the urgency to stop plastic at its source, before it ever reaches the shore. This connects the coastal branch of the CCC with the other two CCC branches. It means upstream disposal and the very elimination of petroleum-based single-use plastic, addressing the problem where it starts.

Indeed, there is plenty to do on the shoreline and in coastal waters.

A Transition to a New CCC

How do we transition to a “New CCC”? In this case, history provides lessons. FDR had his beloved TERA; we have decades of smaller CCC-like prototypes.

Smaller state-based and NGO-associated models have existed for many decades. The trend started in the late 1950s, when the Student Conservation Association (SCA) launched projects for college students in national parks and national forests. Then there was the Youth Conservation Corps — a joint effort of the Department of the Interior and the US Forest Service — at its height in the mid-1970s.

In the late 1970s into the 1980s a larger federal program, the Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC), filled the role. Even toward the end of the Obama administration there were efforts at a “21st Century Conservation Service Corps.” These ideas persist in The Corps Network, a loose association of about 130 corps organizations across the country providing young adults and veterans work at projects on public lands, and in rural and urban communities.[2]

These groups can provide an essential base of experience and knowledge looking toward a broader and more comprehensive effort. They all have experienced advocates and experts, available to share what they have learned over the years. At the same time, expecting private or non-profit funders — alone or in tandem — to launch a new CCC is futile. The problems are enormous; the solutions must match the challenge.

Now What?

Neil Maher, in his insightful Nature’s New Deal, clarified that the development of the CCC transformed the very perception of what conservation was. A new CCC — in conjunction with accompanying serious green transition — could likewise recalibrate what comes next. We could witness, and be part of, a substantial culture shift.

While building a new CCC and a climate-ready economy (relying heavily on wind and solar), real connections could be created between forces in traditional conservation, environmentalism, climate-change activism, and environmental justice that have, more often than not, developed apart.

Whether a move toward a new green paradigm actually happens depends on how prepared concerned parties — professional environmental advocates and educators, academic economists, labor leaders, landscape architects, federal and state conservation agency administrators, and human rights champions — are ready for change.

It may depend on how well we can help them connected with each other, and especially with those young people looking for creative work and eager for change.

A visionary alternative needs to be presented and implemented within the context of the Green New Deal. An aware American left can play a crucial role, accelerating the entire process. The lessons of the original CCC can help frame the dialogue and nurture an ambitious coalition to make it all possible.

[1] The CCC experience is well described by such scholars as Neil Maher (in Nature’s New Deal, Oxford University Press [2008]) and Robert D. Leighninger Jr (in Long-Range Public Investment – The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal, South Carolina Press [2007]). For a big-picture view of FDR and his land legacy, you can do no better than Douglas Brinkley’s 744-page masterly Rightful Heritage – Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America (Harper, 2016).

At the same time, “The Living New Deal” is a project dedicated to the work of uncovering the riches of New Deal public works. The team is creating a virtual national register of information, documents, photographs, and stories on the public works made possible by the New Deal, including the CCC. It’s all about research, presentation, and education, and it’s just a few clicks away.

[2] “The Corp Network” is the meeting place for locally-based organizations that engage young adults (generally ages 16–25) and veterans (up to age 35) in service projects to address outdoor, conservation, and community needs. Established in 1985, The Corps Network is the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps. It was preceded by the Student Conservation Association, which has been regularly placing at least a few thousand young people in conservation internships and summer crews in service to the environment. The Corps Network could easily function as a “bridge” to a new and far more sweeping CCC if one were to arise out of the discussions for a Green New Deal. You can find information on the corps and its affiliates here.

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About the Author

Paul J. Baicich is a bird-conservationist and coauthor of three books on North American birdlife. He was a delegate to the founding convention of DSA in 1982, an active member and officer of the International Association of Machinists (LL796), and is currently chair of Our Revolution in Howard County, Maryland.

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