Unemployment surged during the Great Depression. Leaving 25 percent of Americans out of work. Thankfully, we have not reached those numbers during the coronavirus pandemic, but we are currently sitting above 13 percent with way too many young, unskilled workers suffering in their quest to find a job. This is a time in which we can look to our past for answers on how to improve our present while leaving a lasting impact for the future.
President Franklin Roosevelt, who is only overshadowed in terms of conservation success by his elder cousin, Theodore, established The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as a work relief program for unemployed, unmarried men ages 17–28. The CCC operated from 1933 to 1942.
Collin O’Mara, the president and C.E.O. of the National Wildlife Federation, recently published an opinion piece in the The New York Times. O’Mara wrote, “In 1933, when President Franklin Roosevelt created the C.C.C., he was facing, as we are today, the possibility of a lost generation of young people. The conservation-minded president’s idea was to hire young unemployed men for projects in forestry, soil conservation and recreation. By 1942, the 3.4 million participants in “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” had planted more than three billion trees, built hundreds of parks and wildlife refuges and completed thousands of miles of trails and roads.”
When the Recession of 2008 occurred, I was working for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Governor Mitch Daniels saw an opportunity to draw upon the legacy of the CCC. He created the Young Hoosier Conservation Corps (YHCC). I was assigned the task of traveling around the state to document the work of these young men and women. Yes, women too, as Daniels had the wisdom to open the program to both sexes.
It was one of the best assignments of my life. What I wittnessed was an army of young people building, improving, and maintaining parks, trails, and fish and wildlife areas. Most of the work was done outside and these young people thrived in the natural environments. It brought youth of different backgrounds together. Blacks, whites, Latinos and more working side-by-side, getting to know each other, building new mindsets that altered their thinking for life.
The YHCC workers were motivated to come to work, they felt pride in what they were accomplishing and wanted to share with me their newfound appreciation for nature and open space. I’ll never forget the experiences I had with these young adults, like building a hiking bridge at Clifty Falls, removing invasive species from a swamp at Tippecanoe River State Park and earning blisters from swinging a hoe while working on the Knobstone Trail. The lessons from these young workers about the importance of having an opportunity to do work that matters is one I keep front of mind, always.
According to the DNR website, “Statewide, YHCC employees worked on 750 projects at more than 75 DNR properties. More than 30 miles of new trails were constructed, and more than 500 miles of existing trails were upgraded or rehabilitated. YHCC constructed 15 new buildings and renovated or repaired 380 existing buildings. Program participants also rehabilitated or repaired 50 historic buildings, treated or removed 4,700 acres of invasive species, constructed 31 new parking areas and completed 320 other miscellaneous projects. The work was done at state parks, reservoirs, recreation areas, state forests, nature preserves and state historic sites.”
All of this was only in one state. Imagine if a similar program were to roll out nationwide? That’s what O’Mara is calling for, and he has found a legislator who understand this immense opportunity in United States Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon.
I recently listened to a joint press conference held by O’Mara and Senator Wyden to explain the reasoning behind legislation the Senator has filed called the “21st Century Conservation Corps for Our Health and Our Jobs Act.”
Senator Wyden said, ““Rural America feels like it has been hit with a wrecking ball. Forestry workers are being laid off and the recreation industry, which is a powerful economic engine, has essentially come to a complete halt. A 21st century conservation corps would be of great value to rural economies.”
A press release offered by the Senator’s office explained further.
“A historic global pandemic that’s still raging at the start of wildfire season adds up to a prescription for major problems in the months ahead to public health and rural jobs in Oregon and nationwide,” Senator Wyden said. “This legislation takes that pair of problems head-on with a comprehensive attack that connects all the dots with a 21st century Conservation Corps and more to protect health and save jobs.”
When your modern day personal experiences back up the wisdom of history, passion for a cause is easy to manifest. That’s how I feel about this idea of a 21st Century CCC. Creating jobs building and repairing infrastructure of America’s parks and outdoor recreation areas is a legacy we can leave for future generations on to how rise up from a moment of despair to move forward together for the betterment of all.
See you down the trail…
Pic: Young Hoosier Conservation Corps workers build a hiking bridge from natural materials at Clifty Falls State Park.
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