Those crunching data from the COVID-19 downturn often compare the current economic impacts to those of the Great Depression. And while we’re not dealing with the Dust Bowl or the bank failures of the 1930s, our unemployment picture, especially among young Americans, is similarly grim. We’d like to suggest that solutions to some of our modern-day workforce challenges — and some of our environmental and infrastructure challenges — can be found in one of Franklin Roosevelt’s most successful jobs programs — the Civilian Conservation Corps.
A supporter of the conservation movement of his day, FDR established the CCC in 1933 to provide jobs and training for young men, but also to help protect the land. As he said: “The green slopes of our forested hills lured our first settlers and furnished them the materials of a happy life. They and their descendants were a little careless with that asset.”
In its nine years, ending as World War II began, the CCC employed more than 3 million men ages 17 to 28, built 46,854 bridges and 125,000 miles of road, strung almost 90,000 miles of phone wire, and planted more than 3 billion trees (to include many around what is today the U.S. Air Force Academy). In exchange they received a small salary, room and board, health care and skills training, and many were taught to read and write.
In a May op-ed in The New York Times, Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, proposed an updated version of “Roosevelt’s Tree Army.” “Our national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands have $20 billion in deferred maintenance — and states have tens of billions of dollars more,” he wrote. “Eighty million acres of national forests need rehabilitation. Half a million abandoned coal and hard-rock mines and thousands of orphaned oil and gas wells need reclamation. More than 12,000 species of at-risk wildlife, fish and plants need conservation.”
But as good as it would be to have a 21st-century “tree army” dedicated solely to protecting the land, we would hope that the work of a new CCC would be much, much broader in scope.
Today’s America is a nation with many broken things — infrastructure, rural internet access, long-untended public wild lands, water/soil/air pollution, and an environmental backwardness that ignores the coming devastation of climate change. At the same time, we have new generations of young men and women hungry for education that doesn’t come with the crushing burden of student debt, and work that makes meaningful change in the world.
What if this new national venture was big enough to deliver education for next-generation careers in renewable energy... infrastructure design, construction and maintenance... and the development and application of technologies that combat climate change? What if we taught them, then let them pay back the cost of that education by turning them loose on some of the nation’s toughest challenges: rebuilding our infrastructure, converting structures and systems to renewable energy, cleaning up the world that we’ve been “a little careless with.”
A lot of Americans look at our legislative gridlock and stumbling response to COVID-19 and wonder if we’re still capable of great things. This new CCC would be an enormous undertaking, but maybe it would shake the country out of its time- and money-wasting ways, buckle down and get stuff done.
Editorial board: Regan Foster, Bryan Grossman, Mary Jo Meade, Helen Robinson, Amy Gillentine Sweet