Monday, April 2, 2018
by Benjamin Alexander, City University of New York
Eighty-five years ago, on April 5, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order allocating US $10 million for “Emergency Conservation Work.” This step launched one of the New Deal’s signature relief programs: the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC. Its mission was to put unemployed Americans to work improving the nation’s natural resources, especially forests and public parks.
Today, when Americans talk about “big government,” the connotation is almost always negative. But as I show in my history of the Corps, this agency infused money into the economy at a time when it was urgently needed, and its work had lasting value.
Corps workers planted trees, built dams and preserved historic battlefields. They left trail networks and lodges in state and national parks that are still widely used today. The CCC taught useful skills to thousands of unemployed young men, and inspired later generations to get outside and help conserve America’s public lands.
Beyond its physical impact, the corps helped to broaden public support for conservation. In the 1940s and 1950s, youth groups such as the Oregon-based Green Guards volunteered in local forests clearing ﬂammable underbrush, cutting fire breaks and serving as fire lookouts. Others, such as the Student Conservation Association, advocated for wilderness protection and conservation education. Hundreds of former CCC enrollees helped lead these efforts. Today many teenagers work in national parks, forests and wildlife refuges every summer.
Although it is hard to picture a CCC-style initiative winning political support today, some of its ideas still resonate. Notably, the Obama administration’s economic stimulus plan and some proposals for upgrading U.S. infrastructure present federal spending on projects that benefit society as a legitimate way to stimulate economic growth. The CCC combined that strategy with the idea that America’s natural resources should be protected so that everyone could enjoy them.