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The idea for the Civilian Conservation Corps sprang into action almost overnight, in March 1933, during the magnificent ferment of the first hundred days of Roosevelt’s New Deal. It became one of the most successful projects of the Thirties, acclaimed by both parties.

The theory was simple: we had a lot of young men out of work; outdoor work was good for young men; therefore, let’s get the boys out into the woods! Within weeks, the first experimental CCC camp was in operation at Camp Roosevelt, two hours west of Washington, D.C., in the green woods of the George Washington National Forest. Reserve Army officers were called back on active duty to supervise the boys, and out into the woods they went with shovel and axe. Within a few months, camps began to mushroom throughout the country, with about two hundred boys in each.

What started as a make-work project rapidly developed into the most comprehensive program for the management and conservation of natural resources that any nation had ever undertaken. Frankly improvising, the professional conservationists of the US Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Soil Conservation Service shifted into high-gear projects that had only been dreams of forestry and conservation technicians.

Conservationists who had despaired of moving beyond the first giant step taken by the pioneers of the Teddy Roosevelt–Gifford Pinchot era—when the major national park and forest areas were set aside for public use—suddenly awoke to find a new force at work. Raw brain and muscle, willing and enthusiastic, became available almost overnight for the long-dreamed work of forest-fire prevention, erosion control, timber-stand improvement, new outdoor recreational facilities, and earth-dam reservoirs.

As the waste motion came under control—as the boys from across the nation were trained into effective, skillful teams—millions of acres of land were transformed.

The demands of World War II mobilization drained the CCC’s manpower, but the conservation needs remained. The job the CCC did until 1942 in putting our forests and farmlands into shape was by no means finished, though the work was put aside “temporarily.” Conservation programs continued on a strictly maintenance basis during the war and have never been resumed on the scale needed.

More than fifty million visitors are now using the national forests alone each year. A critical shortage of forest products will come by the year 2000 if we do not expand our forestry programs now. Trees take time to grow. And, although our agricultural abundance is a concern today, demographers are predicting scarcity to come if we continue to allow wind and water to wear away our topsoil at the present rate.

Water and topsoil are not inexhaustible. Yet hundreds of thousands of streams dump silt into our reservoirs and harbors. Stream banks can be stabilized—but only by human hands planting protective vegetation. Federal and state conservation agencies have simply not been able to tackle these jobs on anywhere near the scale demanded. Manpower shortages and lack of funds, not ignorance, are holding them back. There is work enough to employ several hundred thousand men for a decade or more—in useful, not make-work, jobs.

I am convinced that we must again provide the kind of opportunity for creative work on the land that was given to American boys in the Thirties. The boys would improve young timber stands by thinning, help carve new access roads and trails into the forest areas, plant seedlings on bare lands, stabilize eroding stream banks by hand-planting. They would construct picnic areas and retaining walls; erect earth dams to create upstream reservoirs; improve lakes, streams, and marshes for fish and wildlife; rebuild game cover; and team up for fighting forest fires and reseeding deteriorated rangelands.

It would be hard, dusty, and rugged work, but if I know American boys, they would fight to participate. 

From “A Plan to Save Trees, Land, and Boys,” which appeared in the January 1959 issue of Harper’s Magazine


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May 2019