The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a work relief program that gave millions of young men employment on environmental projects during the Great Depression. Considered by many to be one of the most successful of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the CCC planted more than three billion trees, and constructed trails and shelters in more than 800 parks nationwide during its nine years of existence. The CCC helped to shape the modern national and state park systems we enjoy today.

    The Army organized the transportation of thousands of volunteers to work camps around the country. By July 1, 1933, 1,433 working camps had been established and more than 300,000 men put to work. It was the most rapid peacetime mobilization in American history.

    Under the guidance of the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, CCC employees fought forest fires, planted trees, cleared and maintained access roads, re-seeded grazing lands and implemented soil-erosion controls. Additionally, they built wildlife refuges, fish-rearing facilities, water storage basins and animal shelters. To encourage citizens to get out and enjoy America’s natural resources, FDR also authorized the CCC to build bridges and campground facilities.

    The CCC enrolled mostly young, unskilled and unemployed men between the ages of 18 and 25. The men came primarily from families on government assistance. Men enlisted for a minimum of six months. Each worker received $30 in payment per month for his services, in addition to room and board at a work camp. The men were required to send $22 to $25 of their monthly earnings home to support their families. Some corpsmen received supplemental basic and vocational education while they served. In fact, it’s estimated that some 57,000 illiterate men learned to read and write in CCC camps. In addition to younger men, the CCC enrolled World War I Army veterans, skilled foresters and craftsmen, and roughly 88,000 Native Americans living on Indian reservations.

    Enrollment in the CCC peaked in August 1935. At the time, more than 500,000 corpsmen were spread across 2,900 camps. It’s estimated that nearly three million men – about five percent of the total United States male population – took part in the CCC over the course of the agency’s nine-year history. Women were prohibited from joining the CCC. Actors Walter Matthau and Raymond Burr worked in Montana and California, respectively. Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound, also served in the program.

    You may well ask why am I writing about this long-defunct program: It only lasted nine years, and few people today have ever heard of it?

    I am writing about it for several reason: First, it was a program that created unity in the country. Second, it achieved more, in a few years, than most government programs achieve in decades. Three, it contributed to well-being of all citizens, an achievement that continues today, witnessed by the National Park annual visitation numbers. And fourth, it is a model that the country badly needs today.

    The VISTA (domestic) and Peace Corps (International) programs are worthy successors, but they don’t seem to have generated the same level of involvement, commitment and education that CCC did.

    I have said before that I feel the U.S. needs a purpose, and a re-vamped CCC would seem to be an excellent vehicle. There would obviously have to be changes from the original design, but supporting the National Park System could definitely be retained as one component.  

    In today’s divided U.S. society, a new CCC could contribute substantially to re-uniting the country. Disaffected youth would be given a purpose and would feel part of something worthwhile. I would even suggest that participation in the new CCC, VISTA or Peace Corps programs be considered National Service, and therefore obligatory. Giving them a purpose, understanding, education, and a commitment would be a societal dream, given the current state of affairs in the U.S.

    What components, alongside the National Park Service idea, do you think should be included? I await your suggestions.

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