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FDR, Treehugger-in-Chief, Inspires Hopes for Coastal Conservation Corps

[1]This past weekend we went to the 7th annual Roosevelt Reading Festival [2] at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, that featured 21 authors of such works as FDR’s Alphabet Soup: New Deal America 1932–1939 [3] (Tonya Bolden), Beyond the Bonus March and GI Bill: How Veteran Politics Shaped the New Deal Era [4] (Stephen R. Ortiz), and The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America [5] (Raymond Arsenault), topped off with a keynote address by the eminent historian Alan Brinkley, author of a new biography, Franklin Delano Roosevelt [6].

“I Propose to Create a Civilian Conservation Corps.”

The author we most wanted to see—introduced by FDR’s grandson David M. Roosevelt (see below)—was Neil M. Maher, author of Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement [7] (Oxford, 2008). Maher, an environmental historian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, explained that Franklin Roosevelt’s conservationist credentials were strong even before he was governor of New York (1929–1932) and president of the United States; fittingly, while governor he was also president of the Boy Scout Foundation of Greater New York.

As a young man Roosevelt became concerned about erosion on his family’s Hudson River estate, Springwood, and became “a tree-planting fiend” to prevent further soil loss and degradation and to restore his family’s farm to its former abundance. Roosevelt was stunned to learn that in the 1840s his ancestors had grown prizewinning corn; in the years since, the formerly rich topsoil had washed away. In the 1920s FDR launched an aggressive soil restoration program, directing the planting of about 20,000 to 50,000 trees per year on his estate. So committed was Roosevelt to trees’ restorative powers that once in the ’20s when he went to vote, he listed his occupation as “tree farmer.”

Only weeks after taking office, Franklin Roosevelt said in his “Relief of Unemployment” message to Congress on March 21, 1933:

It is essential to our recovery program that measures immediately be enacted at unemployment relief. . . . The first step is the enrollment of workers now by the federal government for such public employment as can be quickly started. . . . I propose to create a Civilian Conservation Corps to be used in simple work, not interfering with normal employment, and confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control, and similar projects . . .

[8]Roosevelt signed the Civilian Conservation Corps into law in March 1933. The new president saw the CCC as a practical solution to two urgent crises, economic and environmental. Unemployment in 1933 was about 12 million—or 25 percent of the American workforce. Young, unmarried men between 18 and 25 who were on relief rolls were eligible to enlist. About 200 men lived at each camp, many of which they built themselves—eventually there were some 5,000 across the U.S.—and room and board were provided. The men were paid $1 per day; they could keep $5 per month, but had to send $25 back home to their families, an invigorating stimulus to depressed local economies. The CCC planted trees, sorted seeds, planted trees (seedlings), fought forest fires, and built fire lookout towers. At night the men could take courses to learn to read, type, to study practical crafts and trades such as stonework, carpentry, and automotive repair. Maher writes in Nature’s New Deal:

The more than 3 million young men who joined the CCC between 1933 and 1942 . . . [planted] 2 billion trees, slowing soil erosion on 40 million acres of farmland, and developing 800 new state parks.

[9]The terrible Dust Bowl of the mid 1930s, whose rust red dust clouds blew from the Great Plains as far as Hyde Park, New York, would have been even worse if not for the remediation work of the CCC: tree plantings and contour plowing. Later in the decade, work on state and national parks included picnic shelters, hiking trails, bridges, dams to form swimming lakes, etc. Between 1933 and its closure in 1942, “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” planted some 2.3 billion trees in the United States. Many “veterans” or “graduates” of the CCC went on to pursue careers as forest rangers and environmentalists, in engineering, agronomy, botany, chemistry, and related fields. Many took jobs with federal conservation bureaus such as the Soil Conservation Service or worked in the U.S. Forest Service [10].

The Conservation Corps’ Legacy Lives On

In 1965 Lyndon Johnson created Job Corps, which was administered by a former CCC enrollee and housed its own young enrollees in abandoned CCC camps that were named Civilian Conservation Centers; in 19771 Richard Nixon signed an act establishing the Youth Conservation Corps; and in 1977 Congress initiated the Young Adult Conservation Corps. President Bill Clinton followed suit in 1993 with AmeriCorps, which according to one newspaper reporter “considers itself the ‘grandchild’ of the original CCC [and] routinely does much of the same type work its ‘grandparent’ did.” —Nature’s New Deal (p. 215)

In addition to AmeriCorps [11] (below), there is still today a Corps Network [12], “strengthening America through service and conservation,” that is active in 45 states with some 30,000 members aged 16 to 25, active in conservation, infrastructure improvement, and human service projects.

[13]Maher (shown at right) says that a present-day, “new and improved” Civilian Conservation Corps could hire young people to plant trees, set up windmills across the former Dust Bowl and solar energy panels in the Sun Belt, and help cultivate energy-efficient biofuels throughout the U.S. He has written [13] that “While Roosevelt funded the New Deal’s CCC with federal dollars, public spending for Obama’s new program could be greatly reduced through market mechanisms like those embraced by Brazil . . . by collecting carbon vouchers and water-use fees from the new program’s reforestation efforts, and by selling clean, green energy generated from new windmills, solar panels, and biofuels.” (See his article “Is It Time for a Green New Deal? [13]”)

We had a chance to talk with Maher after the presentation, and he likes the idea of a Coastal Conservation Corps [14] that Levees Not War and LaCoastPost.com [15] have promoted. He says that for greatest impact a new CCC should probably be federally administered and funded (perhaps with additional contributions from friendly private firms). If a state already has its own CCC (California, for example), the state’s CCC could partner with the national organization.

In Louisiana the America’s Wetland Conservation Corps [16] (AWCC), sponsored by America’s Wetland [17]: The Campaign to Save Coastal Louisiana, with funding from AmeriCorps, functions on a similar model: it is administered jointly by Louisiana State University’s Ag Center and the lieutenant governor’s office, and participates in the national AmeriCorps [18] program. (Each state’s AmeriCorps program is administered by the lieutenant governor’s office—in Louisiana, the guiding office is called Louisiana Serve [19].) Louisiana’s AWCC has some 30 full-time and part-time members who for the past three years have been working on wetlands restoration projects (such as planting cypresses in St. Bernard Parish) and outreach education projects on wetlands and environmental conservation.

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[20]We also spoke briefly with Mr. David B. Roosevelt [20] (left), a grandson of FDR, who wrote a concept paper based on the CCC for the Clinton Administration, an outline that eventually became the National Civilian Community Corps department of AmeriCorps. As a consequence Mr. Roosevelt was appointed to serve on the national board for the National Civilian Community Corps. He recommends the California state CCC as a model of how a state civilian conservation corps should be organized.

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BTW, we took an Amtrak train from Penn Station in New York City and we were pleased to see that the Poughkeepsie station is being renovated with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act [ARRA], better known as the stimulus bill of February 2009. Our tax dollars at work!

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Learn More about the CCC

PBS American Experience film The Civilian Conservation Corps [21]

PBS interview with Neil Maher [22]

CCC photo gallery [8] (PBS American Experience)

Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy [23]

Neil M. Maher, “Is It Time for a Green New Deal?” [13]

Neil M. Maher, Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement [7] (Oxford, 2008)

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