Revive the Civilian Conservation Corps

May 19th, 2009

By Jan Barry

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.

For more information:

CCC Brief History, Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy
The Civilian Conservation Corps and The National Forests, U.S. Forest Service
The California Conservation Corps,
For ‘green jobs,’ Obama should look to the CCC,
State conservation corps survives budget cuts, San Francisco Chronicle

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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9 Responses to “Revive the Civilian Conservation Corps”

  1. Brian |


    The New Deal did not ameliorate the depression, it exacerbated it. For 8 years, FDR promised, much the same way Stalin did with all of his 5- and 10-year plans, that these things would raise us up. It didn’t work for Stalin, and it didn’t work for FDR.

    In order to raise a foundering economy, capital must be put to productive use. Busy-work is not productive.

  2. Larry |

    Even though I consider FDR to have been a “closet” socialist and far to good a friend to Stalin, I think the CCC and WPA did help from the stand point that the programs provided some peace of mind to the people in general.
    I doubt such programs would get very far today. Between the ACLU, NOW, NAACP, Gay Rights and you name it, only white males would be left to actually work and of course that would be labeled as racism.

  3. Harvey |


    I agree with Brian’s POV! Our government is already way to large, we don’t need thousands of new government employees in a Conservation Corps.

    As I see it, the only way to get ourselves out of our economic hole is to provide incentives to private industry to grow and hire new workers as they grow. I’m far from being an economist and can’t be specific but I have a sense that tax breaks for companies, tied to their growth, will put hundreds of thousands of people back to work.

    I also have a strong sense that nothing like that will happen under an Obama administration. Hope I’m wrong!

  4. Tom |

    Modern analyses indicate that many New Deal programs did little to help economic recovery during the Great Depression, and some actually made things worse. The economic savior, of course, was WWII.

    The CCC wasn’t intended to be a permanent structural response to the economic crisis of those days, if for no other reason than Congress wouldn’t permit it. But it did put a lot of unemployed young men to work, injected money into the economy through wages paid to the workers and other CCC-related costs, and got some useful work done for the country. I don’t see why that couldn’t happen again, and it would probably be a lot better use of tax dollars than some of the other things being done to “stimulate” the economy.

    I don’t know what the impact of today’s quota requirements and equal opportunity demands, not to mention predictable objections from unions, would be. Those are usually counterproductive, in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. But it’s worth a try.

  5. Brian Bagent |

    The economy can only move forward when businesses produce things that people want to purchase. The CCC and the rest of the New Deal created busy-work to produce things that had little or no value for most people.

    Business transactions are a trade of value for value. You could work like a Trojan, but if you produce something that nobody values, it is of no economic benefit to anyone. That is why the government cannot “jump start” the economy, and should not even try. The net effect of government priming the pump is to take productive capital away from the people that know best how to use it, thereby making a scarce commodity even more scarce, artificially elevating prices in some markets and artificially depressing prices in others. Who, then, is the beneficiary of such government policies? Only those with close personal/political ties to the government.

    There is an overall negative economic consequence to nearly every action the government takes.

  6. Tom |

    Brian, as a matter of principle I agree with you. However, it seems to me that sometimes temporary drastic measures that violate normal principles of economics are justified.

    The CCC was very popular, and it did serve the purpose of temporarily providing some relief to the unemployed. And I don’t agree that CCC projects produced things of little value. Another New Deal program, the WPA, was more controversial, but it also provided temporary employment and produced definite benefits. Having lived in San Antonio, I’ve never forgotten that the wonderful San Antonio River Walk was a WPA project. I’m sure you’ve been there. It would have been nice if there had been no depression and funding had been available for the project through normal sources. But that wasn’t the case.

  7. Jan |

    well, let’s see: 100 years ago the federal government was very small and big businesses like Standard Oil and the railroads were booming–and there were few hospitals, few public schools, few colleges, no pretense of food safety, and no social security net for anyone. The reality is that most companies providing paying jobs these days would go belly up if they didn’t have government contracts or government subsidies, and now, for big banks and big automakers, government bailouts.

  8. Kevin |

    I’m with you on this one, Jan. I made a similar argument several months ago but in a different context.

    Another HUGE difference between the economy today and that of 100 years ago is that mega-businesses like Standard Oil are today publically-held corporations. And for better or worse, the cold, hard truth is that publically-held corporations exist to do one thing and one thing only: produce profits for shareholders. Pumping oil or staffing hospitals or ostensibly fulfilling contractual obligations in rebuilding Iraq are all incidental to why the corporation exists. And we all know that any business which loses sight of why it exists soon ceases to.

    The whole “greed is good” mantra is what created the economic morass we find ourselves struggling through. Reviving the CCC and centering it on projects in the public good would go a long way towards reminding us of our moral and ethical interconnectedness with our fellow citizens.

  9. Brian |

    Which ethic would that be Kevin? The one that declares that theft is somehow moral when the government does it, but immoral when private citizens do it? If I do not have a right to take by force or coercion the property of someone else, then I cannot confer that which I do not have to the government. If a group of people does not have the right to take by force or coercion the property of another, then that group cannot confer that non-existent right to the government, even if done by popular vote.

    If it isn’t a right, then it is simply about power, so let’s just dispense with the idle chatter about about “moral and ethical interconnectedness with our fellow citizens.”

    What created the economic morass we now find ourselves is a corrupt government with too much power combined with too many looters sitting in high office in large corporations eager and willing to take what does not belong to them, to take that which they have not earned.

    As I said, a business deal is a trade of value for value. A business deal, whether between me and Kroger or between Conoco and Arthur Anderson, represents the highest morality that two free moral agents can be involved with: the integrity of one for the integrity of the other. The seller must have integrity, dedication to his ideals to produce that which he produces. I, as the buyer, must have used the higest within me to earn the money that I will use to purchase from him.

    Any other deal is, at best, a swindle. The more governmental involvement, the more likely it becomes to see more and more swindles because there is almost never a value for value trade.

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