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Millions of young men toiled in FDR's 'tree army' to help end the Great Depression. Could it work again?

CCC enrollees working at Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

GIFFORD PINCHOT NATIONAL FOREST

By JASON NARK | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: August 31, 2020

PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Their legacy in Pennsylvania is built in stone, in walls and cabins, on overlooks far above river valleys and the roads leading up to them. They were young men and teenagers with bleak prospects, staring down the nation’s worst economic crisis. But before they went off to fight fascism in Europe, the Greatest Generation grabbed axes and sledgehammers to join Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “tree army” in the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The CCC, started in 1933, was one of the most popular New Deal programs that helped lift the United States out of the Great Depression. It sent 3.5 million men between the ages of 18 and 25 into the wilds, where they earned about $30 a month building roads, flood barriers, and campgrounds. Over the course of nine years, the CCC changed the face of outdoor recreation in this country, ushering in the era of easy-access “car-camping” that exploded after World War II and continues today.

“They did a tremendous amount of work in Pennsylvania, and it’s work that’s endured,” said John Norbeck, deputy secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “They built some of the state’s most iconic parks, like Promised Land and Rickett’s Glen and French Creek. We had about 40 to 50 state parks in Pennsylvania prior to the CCC,, and today we have 121.”

Now, amid a global pandemic that has pushed unemployment numbers to 13.7 percent in Pennsylvania, parallels to the Great Depression are obvious. A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier this month is looking back to that time, too, by proposing to resurrect the corps and related work programs in rural America. The 21st Century Conservation Corps Act, introduced by Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, aims to support rural economies “by investing in job training and development, rangeland and working lands conservation programs, and the planting of billions of trees.” That bill would include $9 billion to fund training and hiring specifically for “jobs in the woods” nationwide.

“During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps created thousands of jobs while also making investments in our public lands that Americans are still benefiting from nearly a century later,” Merkley told The Inquirer in a statement.

In June, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware introduced a bipartisan bill to expand existing national service programs, including AmeriCorps, the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, and Senior Corps, which enlists people 55 and over who are interested in “improving lives and fostering civic engagement,” among seniors. AmeriCorps, founded in 1993, has a broader scope than the original CCC, in that it works in urban areas and on projects beyond conservation and forestry.

Coons and his supporters are trying to include the proposal in the next round of COVID-19 stimulus funding, believing it would “empower hundreds of thousands of younger Americans to serve their communities.”

Anne Harper, executive director of the Delaware Nature Society, said those workers could be put to use immediately in that state, restoring wetlands and combating rising seas.

Supporters and historians have been calling for the return of the CCC for decades.

“I’ve been trying to get Bernie Sanders to look into it for a few years,” said Jay Alexander, founder of the Civilian Conservation Corps Initiative, which advocates for the program’s revival. “It shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but some officials don’t want to spend the money on any social programs. I don’t think our president cares about national parks.”

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf introduced his version of a statewide CCC in 2016 with the creation of the Outdoor Corps. The “youth” version of Wolf’s own tree army consists of a six-week summer program for those age 15 to 18 and a 10-month stint for members 18 to 25; both work on projects including trail restoration, invasive species management, and tree planting. There are approximately 250 Outdoor Corps workers, each paid an hourly rate, according to the DCNR’s Norbeck, who added that the pandemic has adversely impacted the numbers.

With “over a billions dollars in parks and forestry dams to repair alone,” he said, there’s more than enough work for a new CCC in Pennsylvania’s woods.

“People see a state park and the serenity it provides, but they don’t realize the work that goes into it,” Norbeck said. “It’s like running a little city, with water treatment plants, roads, buildings, fire responsibilities, and law enforcement. Winter can be really tough on our facilities. Roads get washed out, and a massive number of trees come down.“

Alexander, a Florida resident, said he was inspired to research the CCC while working as a summer ranger at Raccoon Creek State Park near Pittsburgh in 1990. Only about 5,000 of the original 3.5 million CCC members are living today, he said. The CCC ended in 1942, when World War II pulled the men far from home.

Pennsylvania was home to 113 CCC camps where young men worked on various projects from road building to reforestation, second only to California. In 2013, during an 80th anniversary celebration at Promised Land State Park in the Pocono Mountains of Pike County, former workers told The Inquirer of their desperation during the Depression years, how their families couldn’t afford to feed them. In the CCC, the young men received three meals a day.

“I’m not sure what would have come of me if not for the CCC,” John Stopka, a Susquehanna County resident, said at the time. “I think it’s one of the best things this country ever instituted.”

Stopka died in 2017.

The last state park to open in Pennsylvania was Erie Bluffs in 2006, and although the DCNR has been purchasing land in Chester County for a possible state park, new campground projects are rare in the U.S. With the outdoors seen as a safer space than indoors during the pandemic, people have been flocking to the state’s trails and campgrounds. Norbeck said visits are up 30% from this time last year.

If a new CCC were able to build more state and national parks, Norbeck said, “they’d be full.”

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