In 1932 the United States was at an economic standstill, the country faced an environmental catastrophe, and the nation was crisscrossed with hunger marches. Within months after he was elected, Franklin Delano Roosevelt started the jobs program called “The Civilian Conservation Corps” (CCC) to both create jobs and deal with the environmental disaster. The CCC gave jobs to 3 million men and lasted until 1940. In this period, FDR in a radio broadcast asked his radio audience, “Give me your help in this crusade to restore America to its people.” Reviving the CCC for this new year and new decade would help now to restore America to its people and heal the land, just as the program did in the 1930’s.
Men who had been in the CCC say they had grown up poor on farms and saw the Dust Bowl storms that destroyed farms. Also, these men saw soil erosion as a huge problem wasting fertile top soil across the country; children would play in gullies two stories high from soil erosion. For a century and a half, American farmers and forest companies had cut down trees; American farmers didn’t know anything about fertilization or crop rotation, so they had eroded the soil and created huge damage to the land. In the early 1930’s, besides dust storms, there were also forest fires, floods, drought and deforestation – an environmental disaster.
Also in the Great Depression, millions had no jobs and were hungry. FDR knew that young men 18-25 were thrown out of their families and roaming the country looking for food and jobs. There were hunger marches across the country and two national marches to Washington, DC. Within months of FDR taking office, he had gotten Congress to pass legislation to set up the Civilian Conservation Corps and then authorized Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor, to set up the CCC, a jobs program for young men.
The CCC’s young men were put to work planting trees and built the first fire roads on government lands. They fought forest fires. In national and state parks across the nation, they built the first lodges and roads. They worked in 100 trades, including carpentry, mechanics and road and dam building. At night from 6-10 PM, they attended classes – many learning to read and write as well as learning a trade. They learned automobile mechanics, horticulture, cooking, baking, photography, radio work and many other trades. The program gave work to cooks, administrators and engineers. Newsreels made in the 1930’s often showed CCC boys being interviewed. This footage, rare now, was recently broadcast in the documentary film “Civilian Conservation Corps” on PBS fall 2009.
The men in the CCC planted over 2 billion trees and stopped soil erosion, helping to repair the immense environmental damage so that the country’s environment was improved by 1941. They built the first ski trails, starting the ski industry. They built roads and lodges in national parks, leaving as a legacy recreation facilities that Americans enjoyed for the next 70 years.
In 1997, I visited Death Valley and met CCCers – now 86 or 87 – and their wives who came back for a 60-year reunion to see the roads and lodges they built in Death Valley National Park. In Death Valley, the 1,200 CCC men built 500 miles of roads; put in water and telephone lines; erected 76 buildings for themselves, park employees and visitors; built trails to scenic points; put in five campgrounds, restrooms and picnic areas; developed an airplane field; built a laundry, village and trading post for the Shoshone Indians; helped survey the monument, and built an airplane landing field. My friend Donna Cashell’s father worked in the CCC and was proud of his work. The young men who had been beaten down got renewed faith in themselves by seeing the productive work they had done.
The young men who had been hungry started eating regular meals in the CCC. They got their first medical and dental exams. They lived in army-like barracks, worked eight hours a day for $30 a month, and they sent $25 a month to their families – that $25 helped families all across the country. They had recreation such as swimming after work. The program wasn’t perfect. For a short while, the CCC had a few female units but quickly disbanded them. At first, white and black young men were in the same CCC units, but segregationists in the South made a stink so FDR set up segregated units.
The Obama administration could quickly revive this marvelous program, helping to give employment to those who most need it and helping the country deal with global warming. Imagine if again we had 3 million young men and women planting trees, putting in solar panels, installing wind mills in north Texas and Oklahoma to generate electricity and helping to install new electricity lines to bring this windmill-generated electricity to the rest of the nation. This new CCC would be integrated and would include women, of course.
We need instead of a large army a large Civilian Conservation Corps 3 million strong working to fight global warming and to get the unemployed working again, particularly the youth. For 2010, we need to end the useless Afghan and Iraq wars that were built and maintained on lies and corruption and bring the troops home. Instead we need a peaceful environmental army of the new Civilian Conservation Corps.
FDR’s New Deal sprang from the marches and demonstrations of the hungry and jobless in the early years of the Depression. We need to get active, each one of us, as citizens. We need to speak out and organize to get this new CCC legislation introduced and passed through Congress. If need be, we could have local and national marches as they did in the 1930’s. We need art and literature that focus on our country and its people like the art and literature of the 1930’s. We need a thousand Civilian Conservation Corps camps across this land.