The Civilian Conservation Corps was America’s first Green New Deal as the young men in its employ would battle a changing climate.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was America’s first “Green New Deal.” Originally created as a jobs program, the CCC responded to a climate emergency when a series of deadly dust storms turned America’s farmland into wasteland. The young men who became part of this historic effort were among the very first to combat climate change in the United States. Given President Biden’s plan to create a Civilian Climate Corps modeled after the CCC, it’s therefore a worthy addition to our More Than Just Parks Environmental Heroes series.
Today, climate scientists predict the same conditions are more than twice as likely to produce these destructive dust storms once again in the not-to-distant future. It’s therefore an appropriate time to consider the lessons of America’s first Green New Deal.
Despite it’s inception nearly 100 years ago, the CCC as it was no longer exists. What exactly was the CCC and what happened to it?
Let’s find out!
The Purpose of the Civilian Conservation Corps
Elected in 1932 to combat an economic depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt also became the first president to use the power of the federal government to combat climate change. Roosevelt utilized a voluntary public works relief program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, to tackle a climate emergency.
By the mid 1930s, what became known as the Dust Bowl had ravaged much of the Midwest. It destroyed thousands upon thousands of farms while forcing families to flee for their lives. It would be left to the federal government to confront the science of a changing climate to find solutions to this emerging threat.
FDR, A President Who Understood The Importance Of Conservation
Franklin Roosevelt persuaded Congress that the CCC would serve, first and foremost, as a jobs program. For FDR, however, the program was also influenced by his own interest in forestry and soil management, acquired over the course of efforts undertaken by him to revitalize hundreds of acres of farmland at his family’s estate in Hyde Park, New York.
According to Nature’s New Deal, a 2009 book examining the CCC, the program raised the conservation consciousness of many of its participants. Young men immersed themselves in the program and learned about issues such as soil erosion, reforestation, improved uses of the land and the potential damage produced by forest fires. Many were also involved in battling and/or trying to prevent these deadly fires.
From the CCC, some went on to jobs with the National Park Service, the forestry-service unit of the Department of Agriculture, and other federal, state, and local conservation programs.
The Great Depression
Many economists agree that the Great Depression had four principal causes:
- A historic stock market expansion financed with borrowed money to be repaid with profits generated by ever-increasing share prices which collapsed when these share prices became over-inflated.
- A series of banking panics, during which large numbers of customers, fearful of their own bank’s solvency, attempted to withdraw their deposits in cash thus producing a run on these banks.
- Decreased international lending due to rising interest rates.
- Steep tariffs on a wide range of agricultural and industrial products which further depressed national economies.
Environmental Factors Also Played A Role
As Charles River Editors write in their History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, environmental factors also played a role in America’s economic misfortunes.
Part of the problem was caused by nature itself, as droughts and floods struck different parts of the nation with equally devastating results. The rest of the problems were caused by farmers who were either ignorant of the toll farming took on their land or who had too little land on which to farm.
Clifford Hammond’s CCC experiences
Looking back, it’s difficult to understand how farmers could have rejected the agricultural science then taught in schools. Clifford Hammond, who grew up with a farming background, explains.
“I was raised on a farm and we were poor. I just thought that was the way life was going to be. We didn’t have elaborate stuff to eat, either. Like, I say, cornbread for noon, cornbread and beans, and cold cornbread and milk for supper.“
“My daddy didn’t know hardly what fertilization was, rotation of crops, or soil erosion, and stuff like that. My ag[griculture] teacher taught it, but he was just too far ahead of [the] times. And the farmers didn’t accept him.”
An Army Of Young Men | Civilian Conservation Corps
Once the Civilian Conservation Corps had been created, America needed to recruit an army of young men who were willing to tackle the challenges of soil erosion and reforestation. President Roosevelt took an active interest in the program. He never missed an opportunity to promote one of his favorite programs.
“It’s very good to be here at these Virginia CCC camps. I wish that I could take a couple of months off from the White House and come down here and live with them, because I know I’d get the full health the way they live. The only difference is that they have put on an average of about 12 pounds apiece since they got here, and I’m trying to take off 12 pounds.”
(Source: Charles River Editors, The Civilian Conservation Corps: The History of the New Deal’s Famous Jobs Program during the Great Depression)
Causes Of The Dust Bowl | Civilian Conservation Corps
Long before scientists understood the impact of humans on climate change, the foundation for a climatological disaster would be a direct consequence of our own ignorance. According to Maria Trimarchi of How Stuff Works:
“When pioneers headed west in the late 19th century, many couldn’t resist the lure of the tall grassy land in the semiarid midwestern and southern plains of the United States.
They settled there to farm. They were prosperous in the decades that followed, but when the 1930s rolled in, so did strong winds, drought and clouds of dust that plagued nearly 75 percent of the United States between 1931 and 1939. The era became known as the legendary Dust Bowl.”
The Seeds Of A Climate Disaster Were Planted
Just as the seeds of an economic calamity were sowed by unregulated financial markets in the 1920s, so were the seeds of a climate disaster sowed by faulty agricultural practices. A post-World War I recession led farmers to try new mechanized farming techniques as a way to increase profits.
Farmers invested in expensive equipment to boost productivity. Unplowed land was plowed which led to record crops, but at the same time drained the soil of many of its nutrients, which would render it worthless by the 1930s..
Topsoil Blew Away
What resulted was the loss of fertile topsoil that literally blew away in the winds, leaving the land vulnerable to drought and inhospitable for growing crops. In a brutal twist of fate, the rains stopped. And, the deadly dust storms commenced ravaging everything in their path.
Farmers quest for ever higher profits and their failure to follow sound agricultural practices, such as crop rotation, produced dire consequences.
Mass Migration | Civilian Conservation Corps
The ecological disaster triggered by the dust storms produced a mass migration. Farmers lost their farms as their soil became worthless. Many, with no place to go and no work to sustain them, packed up their belongings and headed west for California.
Known as the Okies, since many came from Oklahoma, they would leave behind devastated lands and economic despair. They went in search of a new life for themselves and their families.
Mortgage And Farming Relief Acts
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the first of several mortgage and farming relief acts under the New Deal. The goal was to reduce foreclosures and keep farms afloat. Unfortunately, by the end of 1934, roughly thirty-five million acres of farmland were ruined, and the topsoil covering 100 million acres had blown away.
Bold, Persistent Action | Civilian Conservation Corps
Government authorities didn’t understand the ecological catastrophe unfolding in the American Midwest. Nevertheless, rather than denying science, they embraced it looking for solutions to the problem. One solution proved to be reforestation.
Tree shelterbelts helped farmers adapt to drought conditions by reducing soil erosion and keeping moisture in the soil. The Roosevelt Administration would combat a changing climate by planting an estimated 200 million trees (reforestation) from Texas to the Canadian Border. And, it would be the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps who did the planting.
It was actually Franklin Roosevelt who came up with the idea for a shelterbelt when he was campaigning for president in Montana and his train encountered a wind-eroded hillside.
As Roosevelt gazed on the destruction which had been produced, he envisioned a wall of trees several miles wide running from the Canadian border all the way down to the Texas panhandle. FDR’s advisors and the Forest Service director modified his plan to create a series of walls of trees. Instead of one solid wall, it became a series of walls.
Built Back Better | Infrastructure That’s Still In Use Today
Under Franklin Roosevelt, government made valuable contributions to forest management, flood control, conservation projects, and the development of state and national parks, forests, and historic sites. The CCC moved across America, building roads, bridges, telephone lines, campgrounds and dams — infrastructure that’s still in use today.
Bringing People Together
One of the unintended benefits of the CCC was that it brought together groups of people who might otherwise never have met. These people worked together and shared experiences which they cherished for the rest of their lives. As a consequence, lifelong friendships were formed. This proved important as these young men helped each other find gainful employment after they left the CCC.
Young Americans Were Educated
A second unintended benefit of the CCC was that it helped to educate young Americans. President Roosevelt wanted to tackle the problem of illiteracy so young men would be employable after they left government service. Thus, while they were being paid, they were also being given incentives to learn how to read and write.
As Harley Jolley, a youngster who joined the CCC in 1937 explains, “Many of our boys couldn’t read or write. We were taught the idea that ‘Hey, you can do things. You can do better than what you’ve done in the past. You do have a future.’ And, we believed that.”
(Source: Charles River Editors, The Civilian Conservation Corps: The History of the New Deal’s Famous Jobs Program during the Great Depression)
The Soil Conservation Act
As Part of FDR’s Green New Deal, in 1935 the President promoted and signed legislation, “To provide for the protection of land resources against soil erosion, and for other purposes.” It would be known as the Soil Conservation Act. Two years earlier, a Soil Conservation Service had been created. With this new legislation, twenty thousand Civilian Conservation Corps workers were deployed to work in the Soil Conservation Service.
Heal The Man, Heal The Land
What people fail to realize is that, in addition to forest management, CCC workers served as firefighters. Much of their effort was devoted to fighting active fires in the western states during the hot summer months.
Harley Jolley was one of the men who worked to prevent these fires:
“It was a healing, heal the man, heal the land. Taking land that had been totally devastated, replanting it, rebuilding it. We’re talking about land improvement and conservation all across the country . . . Before FDR, most of our national forests were very slow in getting improvement.“
“For example, there were very, very few fire trails and fire roads. One fire could wipe a thing out. But the CCC boys came in and that changed, rapidly changed . . .We got to see basically a change, not only in us, but also in the total environment, an improvement, not a deterioration, but a major improvement.” (Source: Charles River Editors, The Civilian Conservation Corps: The History of the New Deal’s Famous Jobs Program during the Great Depression)
Civilian Conservation Corps 2021
Today, we confront a planet in peril. To address climate concerns and bolster preparedness for a warming world, President Biden wants to retool and relaunch one of the country’s most celebrated government programs: the Civilian Conservation Corps. A part of his American Jobs Plan calls for $10 billion to launch a new large-scale 21st century CCC to combat a 21st century problem.
The Civilian Climate Corps would employ thousands of young people to address the threat of climate change, strengthen the country’s natural defenses and maintain its ailing public lands.
In The Shadow Of The CCC And The Original Green New Deal
Jonathan Alter, an award-winning author and journalist, who recently published a book examining Jimmy Carter’s efforts to tackle conservation and climate change, states, “Well, we’ve been living in the shadow of Reagan’s America. And now it’s back to the future. We’re going to start to live in the shadow of FDR.”
Public Support For A Civilian Climate Corps
Will the public support these initiatives? According to a recent survey, the answer is yes. A December survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that approximately 85 percent of Americans would support reestablishing a Civilian Conservation Corps.
The CCC left an incredible visible legacy across the United States. It built roads, bridges, trails, campgrounds and so much more. When these young men went off to join, most were undernourished and unemployed. When they returned home, they were healthier, heavier, and more robust.
Most importantly, these young men came home with the knowledge they had made a real difference. This gave many a newfound confidence enabling them to weather the economic downturn and work towards a more hopeful future.
It’s Time For Bold, Persistent Experimentation–Again
President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps worked to prevent a repeat of the disastrous Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The goal of President Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps will be to mitigate the increasingly destructive effects of climate change in the future.
History has shown us that such a program can work. We did it before. We can do it again. Given the looming threat, the time is right for another round of “bold, persistent experimentation.” To do otherwise would be to ignore the lessons of the past. This we cannot afford to do.
*Other sources for this article included:
- Charles River Editors, The Civilian Conservation Corps: The History of the New Deal’s Famous Jobs Program during the Great Depression
- National Public Radio
- Nature’s New Deal
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