Mountains in Clouds
  • Carly Kessler

WHAT IS the Civilian Conservation Corps?

Updated: Jan 9

On 27 January 2021, President Biden signed executive order 14008, titled “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” to create a jobs corps modelled after President FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps. The order delineated the goals of the Administration, which included protecting and conserving public lands, increasing reforestation, bolstering environmental resilience, and—above all—mobilizing a young generation of Americans to carry out meaningful work in environmental restoration.



The $30 billion funding for the reinvigorated Civilian Conservation Corps—namely, the Civilian Climate Corps—is found in the Build Back Better Act. After passing the House, the bill went belly up in the Senate, where—in the absence of any Republican support—it needed the vote of Senator Joe Manchin (D–WV).

In recent weeks, Republicans have increasingly censured the provisions for a revitalized CCC. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), for example, lambasted the Corps as “pure socialist wish fulfillment,” and a “made-up government work program … for young liberal activists.” He scrutinized the reconciliation bill, which, in his view, would spend billions of dollars to give “college students … made-up Potemkin jobs in a make-work program.” McConnell is only part of a larger choir of detractors, with the most verbose including Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR), Sen. John Barrasso (R–WY), and Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), all of who seem to agree that the Corps is no more than “a cabal of federally funded climate police."


Biden’s vision for the CCC—“to conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, [accelerate] reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate”—is a modern emulation of President Roosevelt’s New Deal era program. In 1932, during the Great Depression, the federal government commissioned the National Plan for American Forestry, the Copeland Report, finding that ‘‘the forest resources [were] being seriously depleted.” The ramifications of dwindling forests were compounded by unsustainable agriculture, soil erosion, flooding, and the Dust Bowl across the Great Plains. Back in 1933, Roosevelt’s program confronted the cascading economic, social and ecological fallout by regenerating the national economy, environment and public spirit through enrolling young, otherwise idle men in forestry, soil erosion and flood-prevention work.

Despite perhaps meritable caution on behalf of the fiscally austere Republican Party, the Civilian Climate Corps should not be discarded from the national agenda absent proper consideration. We should not spend superfluously; yet, the CCC remains a prudent investment with immeasurable dividends for the present and future. The CCC would be instrumental in dampening polarization, incubating environmental citizenship, and carrying out ecological remediation for generations to come.



Indictments of “socialism” are the political zeitgeist of the 21st century, but are far from new; our distrust towards centralized authority is not only a stubborn relic of the Cold War, but also of colonial times. During Roosevelt’s tenure, to assuage Americans’ aversion to the federal government, he had to secure CCC funding through a vehement espousal of the “value of work.” In 1933, when Roosevelt pleaded with Congress to establish his CCC, he asserted that “the overwhelming majority of unemployed Americans, who are now walking the streets and receiving private or public relief…would infinitely prefer to work.’’ His emphasis on labor confirmed that his program was not disrupting the larger structures or principles that undergirded the American economy. He was not scheming to redistribute wealth, or hand out free money; the program merely sought to lend a hand to temporarily needy Americans in exchange for “definite, practical” work that benefited the entire nation.

The Civilian Conservation Corps became the most popular New Deal program, and was appraised as a good public investment even by the standards of the most fiscally conservative Americans. State, federal, and private lands were vastly improved by CCC conservation efforts, bringing tangible benefits to—and consistently garnering the affection from—the communities it served. The CCC’s impacts were incontestable: according to University of North Carolina professor William Leuchtenberg, the CCC’s participants planted 2 billion trees, stalled soil erosion on 40 million acres of farmland, developed 800 new state parks, constructed 13,000 miles of hiking trails. By some accounts, over half of all the trees ever planted in the United States, both publicly and privately, were planted by the CCC. It is for these material impacts that a 1933 editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch assured Virginians that enrollee salaries were “in no sense a dole.” If the CCC’s efficacy and purpose could foster support in the Old Dominion of the 1930’s, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be feasible in the 21st century.



While the prospects of a revamped CCC have fallen victim to polarization, the truth is that this program was, and still would be, widely palatable. Neil Maher, a history professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology explained in his book, Nature’s New Deal, that “according to a Gallup poll conducted in 1936, 82 percent of those surveyed wanted the Corps to continue its conservation work both in forests and on farms as well as in parks. This support not only crossed party lines, with 92 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans in favor of maintaining the Corps, but spanned geographic regions as well; in no area of the country did approval for continuing the CCC fall below 80 percent.” In fact, he argues, the Corps was integral in diversifying the purview of the New Deal Coalition. The program catered to Western foresters out West, Midwestern and Southern farmers, and easterners who could now recreate in hundreds of state and national parks near their homes. In 1936, the Conservative newspaper, the Houston Post, admitted that “of all the New Deal agencies, the CCC has probably attracted the most attention…Democrats and Republicans, Socialists and Share-the-Wealthers…have [all] joined in praising its objectives and accomplishments.’’


Aside from contributing to the relief of our incorrigible political fracture, a modern-day CCC would kindle good environmental citizenship. FDR’s championing for the “value of work” went beyond a vindication for an officious or overreaching government; rather, FDR believed that labor in proximity to nature was—in a Jeffersonian sense—self-dignifying and patriotic. The average enrollee in the 1930s never finished high school or held a job. “Works” projects were therefore designed to breathe new life into both the American landscapes and American men. (It is needless to say that the revived CCC would rectify this discriminative injustice by including women).


Beyond this, the CCC brought principles of ecological stewardship to the grassroots level. According to a poll taken in 1939, the conservation of natural resources was “second in point of interest [for] Americans in all walks of life." People were more aware of the role they had in their surroundings, and, in that same ecological vein, the interconnectedness of the economy, environment, and society. As employment rose and World War II began, public opinion for the Corps waned; unsurprisingly, Americans wanted to direct scarce resources towards the conflict. The program lost funding, but its impacts remained; in addition to the physical manifestations of CCC work, the development of ecological consciousness fed to the success of environmental activism and policy enactments in the following decades, including the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973).


So, what happened? Even before the Build Back Better debacle, the essence of the CCC was largely unquestioned. Last March, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) co-sponsored a more modest CORPS Act to “create meaningful employment opportunities, as well as a significant expansion of the human capital working to address community needs around public health, behavioral health, hunger, education, and conservation” (S. 3964). Coons’ bill garnered the support of 7 Republicans within the Senate Finance Committee, including Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Roger Wickers (R-MS), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Bill Cassady (R-LA), John Cornyn (R-TX), Susan Collins (R-ME), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Roy Blunt (R-MS). Perhaps surprisingly, the idea of public service as an ingredient to economic and social recovery did not invite political vitriol.

Later, in October of 2020, according to the think tank Data for Progress, the average Republican—84 percent of voters, to be exact—could get behind the idea of a contemporary Civilian Conservation Corps. After his political ascendency, though, when Biden swapped the word “climate” for “conservation,” Republican support dropped to 44 percent. Despite this, the Civilian Climate Corps remains an opportunity to provide meaningful work by revitalizing communities, responding to natural disasters, building green energy infrastructure, and inculcating environmental integrity.



The climate anxiety that Gen Z has incurred in the face of chronic and costly inaction should not escape any American, not least our state representatives. A Climate Corps could provide opportunities for a young, motivated generation to engage in meaningful work that dually raises awareness and makes tangible impacts for environmental rehabilitation. As the labor market is volatile for young people, people of color, and those without a secondary education, we ought to reflect upon when the environment was a mass movement, instead of a concentration for interest groups. Doing so just might convince us that a rejuvenated Climate Corps is good for our nation, our people, and our planet.


References:

  • Grist

  • Maher, Neil M. Nature's New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

  • Chairman Jim Banks

  • William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.

  • E&E News

  • Brinkley, Douglas. (2016). Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the land of America. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

  • E.O. 14008 of Jan 27, 2021


 
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