Will ObamaCorps Become the New Civilian Conservation Corps?

CCC enrollees carrying transplants to the fields, Shasta National Forest. | Photo: USFS/OSU Special Collections & Archives : Commons/Flickr

How does the past speak to the present? Through any number of stories and the meanings their narrators draw from them and convey to us.

Jim Condon's reflection on his time in the Civilian Conservation Corps is one such example. Like thousands of other young Californians, Condon joined the CCC amid the wounded economy of the early 1930s. The numbers who enrolled with him and the many projects they worked on had a profound impact on the state, due in large part to the aggressive actions of the Forest Service's Regional Forester, Stuart B. Show. He loudly touted the Golden State's many needs and raked in a large percentage of the federal money that flowed through the CCC's coffers.

It was Show's idea to send hundreds of men to help blaze the 800-mile-long Ponderosa Way firebreak running just above the timberline in the Sierra Mountains; he dispatched others to construct the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (the PCT) that ran north from the Mexican border to the Cascades.

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Not all assignments were as monumental, such as Condon's in Bouquet Canyon, but they were significant nonetheless.

Located in the Angeles National Forest, north and east of Santa Clarita, Bouquet Canyon was a beehive of activity. In 1934, the city of Los Angeles completed an earthen dam there to store water pumped in from the L.A. Aqueduct, and the local CCC enrollees cleaned up the post-construction mess by contouring eroded slopes, developing wildlife habitat, and stocking the new reservoir with fish. For his part, Condon "helped widen vital roads to fire lookout towers, strung telephone lines and replaced washed out bridges," and also "thinned trees and built barbecue pits."

As the CCC boys enhanced the Angeles' and other forests' recreational resources - earning them the nickname, the Tree Army -- they were beefed up in turn, sparking a reinvigorated cult of masculinity. Many like Condon remember the skills they learned, the maturity they gained, and the self-assurance that came from swinging an axe, handling earth-moving equipment, and contributing to a cause greater than themselves. Condon affirmed this transformation in the title to a reminiscence he published 50 years later in "Growing Up in the CCC" for Modern Maturity magazine, now known as AARP The Magazine.

His insight is indicative of a significant shift in American environmental culture, argues historian Neil M. Maher in "Nature's New Deal." The CCC "expanded the meaning of conservation beyond the efficient use of natural resources to include as well concern for human health through outdoor recreation," a twinning that "became central to postwar environmentalists."

It remains so, as is suggested in the rhetoric the Obama administration employed in its mid-January roll out of a new interagency council to implement the president's 21st-Century Conservation Service Corps -- herein dubbed ObamaCorps.

This initiative, according to an administrative press release, is a "national collaborative effort to put America's youth and returning veterans to work protecting, restoring and enhancing America's great outdoors."

The promised rewards are many: "The 21CSC focuses on helping young people -- including diverse low-income, underserved and at-risk youth, as well as returning veterans -- gain valuable training and work experience while accomplishing needed conservation and restoration work on public lands, waterways and cultural heritage sites."

Forest fire training at Skagit CCC camp in Mt. Baker National Forest, Washington | Photo: USFS/OSU Special Collections & Archives : Commons/Flickr

Creating employment is only part of the administration's ambition. In the words of Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the 21CSC will "prepare the leaders of the future by providing youth with valuable opportunities for recreation, career development and service to their community and their Nation." The body public will be reformed.

In making this claim of uplift, the proponents of ObamaCorps are hiking down a well-beaten trail. For more than 75 years, Democrats have made the case that there is a crucial link between job creation, public-lands restoration, and the enhancement of human potential in nature's embrace. Indeed, the announcement of 21CSC's development made a dutiful bow in its progenitor's direction, acknowledging that it hoped to honor and expand upon the CCC's New Deal legacy.

But 21CSC is also a legatee of conservation corps-like initiatives in the 1950s and 1960s. One of them blossomed from an undergraduate thesis: in 1955 Vassar College senior Elizabeth Cushman proposed the creation of a student conservation corps, and two years later she started what in time would become the Student Conservation Association. Today, SCA funnels a large number of students to summer jobs on the national grasslands, forests, parks, and refuges, where they repair trails, bridges, campsites, serve as guides, and gain invaluable experience in some of the nation's most iconic landscapes.

That non-profit venture found additional expression in the public arena. In 1959, Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) developed legislation entitled the Youth Conservation Corps Act. Its purposes were right in line with those of the earlier CCC, "to provide healthful outdoor training and employment for young men and to advance the conservation, development, and management of natural resources of timber, soil, and range, and of recreation areas."

They were framed too in the language of unemployment relief "for boys and young men without specialized skills" in an era of increasing specialization and technological sophistication. "The current measure is not aimed at correcting a temporary or momentary dip in the national economy, declared Senator Jennings Randolph (D-WV) during the floor debate. "It is concerned with filling a fundamental gap in our national life, with offering new and healthful opportunities" to American youth facing uncertain job prospects.

Republicans would have none of it. Although the legislation narrowly passed in the Senate, the House refused to take it up due to stiff opposition from the Eisenhower administration. The indefatigable Humphrey kept filing the bill, and in 1965 secured a partial victory -- the creation of Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers funded through War on Poverty outlays. Four years later, Congress passed the Youth Conservation Corps over President Nixon's objections. Until the Reagan administration deleted its funding in 1980 more than 200,000 young men and women benefited from the hands-on education YCC offered; they earned while they learned.

Jobs Corps working in the Angeles National Forest in the late 1960s. | Photo: Courtesy Angeles National Forest

This healthful opportunity would not be replicated for another decade. Then, President George H.W. Bush, during his "a thousand points of light" phase, and more forcefully still his successor Bill Clinton, ramped up the level of federal funds devoted to national-service initiatives. For his part, Clinton argued that "Service is a spark to rekindle the spirit of democracy in an age of uncertainty," a claim that became the motto for the National and Community Service Trust Act (1993). Among its accomplishments was the establishment of AmeriCorps, many of whose volunteers spent their days working hard to regenerate the public lands.

Image: Courtesy of Claremont Colleges LibraryWhy did they do this oft-arduous work? To judge from a pamphlet the government produced in support of NCSTA, this youthful cohort was on a mission not unlike that of its grandparents and parents. "In times of great need, each generation of young Americans has risen to the challenge of our country and answered the call to service," the tri-fold brochure declared. "When the depression swept the nation in the 1930s, President Roosevelt created the CCC," and as its millions of enrollees "planted trees and cleaned rivers...they did more than reclaim nature: they reshaped their future."

So too for young Peace Corps volunteers of the 1960s, who "left the comforts of the U.S. and traveled to the poorest corners of the globe, building schools where none existed and helping farmers feed the hungry people in their villages." Thirty years later, "another young president is calling. The time is now; the challenge is here at home; and the response is AmeriCorps."

This excited prose notwithstanding, my former students, like a lot of other AmeriCorps volunteers, have learned a great deal during their years of service, about how communities function and how best to help those in need, sensitively and sustainably. Theirs has also been a journey of self-discovery, a time to test their abilities and map out their futures. In their growth -- personal and social -- CCC boy Jim Condon would have caught a reflection of his own.

May the same hold true of those who in the coming years join the 21st-Century Conservation Service Corps. Their concerted efforts to spruce up the nation will continue to transmit to the future some much-needed conservation lessons from the past.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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I have always appreciated the CCC trails in Acadia National Park. We hiked there every year for 30+ years, until we started traveling full time in a 29' motorhome. Now we alway smile whenever we see that something we are enjoying was built by the CCC.