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By Hannah Traverse, including adapted historical information and photos from CCC Legacy. Special thank you to Martin Podskoch, CCC Legacy Board of Directors.
Did you know April 2023 marks 90 years since the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)?
The Corps Network’s membership is comprised of nearly 150 Corps programs across the United States. These organizations annually engage more than 20,000 young adults in service projects and job training focused on conservation and community improvement. Corps serve different populations and do different work from one community to the next: more rural programs might build wilderness trails and treat wildfire fuels, while Corps in cities might weatherize homes and manage the urban tree canopy. No matter their focus, all of today’s Corps trace their roots back to the Civilian Conservation Corps.
On the 90th anniversary of the original CCC, we celebrate all that Corps have accomplished and look to the future. We at The Corps Network believe the realities of climate change make it increasingly important that our leaders invest in a revived, justice-centered CCC for the 21st century.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his first visit to a CCC camp, at Camp Fechner, Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, on August 12,1933. National Archives
What was the CCC?
On March 21, 1933, during his first 100 days in office, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the idea of the CCC to Congress. This was during the Great Depression and many people struggled to find work to support their families. Roosevelt called to recruit thousands of unemployed young men and send them to work against the destruction and erosion of America’s natural resources. As FDR said, “I propose to create a Civilian Conservation Corps to be used in simple work … more important, however, than the material gains will be the moral and spiritual value of such work.”
On April 5, just weeks after going to Congress, FDR signed the Emergency Conservation Work Act, creating the CCC. By April 17, the first CCC camp – Camp Roosevelt – was in operation near Luray, VA. CCC camps were overseen by the Army and would each house about 200 participants.
The Triangle Lake CCC camp near the town of Junction City, Oregon. where about 200 young men lived. It consisted of four barracks, a mess hall, recreation hall, administration building, infirmary, shower/toilet, garages, and blacksmith shop. Ed Kelly
CCC enrollees had to be single and unemployed men aged 18-25 with families on government relief. Not long after the start of the CCC, the government launched a parallel program – the CCC Indian Division – which was operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Tribal lands. The CCCID allowed Native men who were older and married; the average age was 34. There were also separate camps operated by the army for unemployed WWI veterans.
Most CCC participants enrolled for six months and worked a 40-hour week for $30 per month. The government sent $25 a month home to the workers’ family. By July 1, 1933, there were 275,000 enrollees and 10,000 supervisory personnel in 1,468 camps. Enrollees received good food, education, uniforms, shelter, and medical care. It was the fastest large-scale mobilization of men in U.S. history.
A group portrait of African American Civilian Conservation Corps workers at an unidentified CCC camp. Photo by Corbis/Getty Images.
CCC camps operated across all 48 states, as well as the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix). Unfortunately, the CCC was not equal to all: there were no opportunities for women (beyond a short-lived “she-she-she” initiative) and the program operated during the era of Jim Crow. While some CCC camps were integrated, the program placed most Black enrollees at segregated camps that often did harder, less desirable work. Black CCC members had few opportunities for upward mobility or leadership, and enrollment numbers were capped. The more than 200,000 Black men who ultimately served in the CCC faced racist policies and challenging conditions, but they worked to support their families and played a critical role in shaping our parks. We honor their service.
The CCC left a lasting impact on our country’s landscape. Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” planted more than three billion trees on land made barren from fires, erosion, intensive agriculture, or logging. In fact, the CCC was responsible for over half the reforestation, public and private, in the nation’s history. Enrollees constructed trails and shelters in more than 800 parks nationwide. The CCC helped shape the modern national and state park systems we use today, building paths and structures that visitors can still enjoy. The CCC developed 94 national park sites, including national parks, monuments, recreation areas, and historic sites.
Just under a decade after its creation, the CCC disbanded in 1942 due largely to increased employment opportunities, decreased funding, and the need for soldiers to serve in World War II.
Learn more about the CCC from these blogs from our archive:
The Pine Ridge Agency – members of the Civilian Conservation Corps Indian Division. National Archives
What happened after the original CCC disbanded?
The model of the CCC was revived in 1957 when the Student Conservation Association (SCA) placed its first college students as volunteers in national parks and forests.
Just over a decade later, the SCA model was used as the basis for legislation that created the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC). At its height during the mid-1970s, the YCC enrolled some 32,000 young people each summer in programs operated by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, as well as by states.
Late in the 1970s, an even larger federal program was launched, the Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC), which provided young people with year-round conservation-related employment and education opportunities.
Student Conservation Association (SCA), 1960s. SCA
Youth Conservation Corps (YCC), 1970s.
Both the YCC and the YACC were virtually eliminated in 1981 due to federal budget cuts. By that time, however, the value of Corps had been proven and many states started to support these programs directly. California became the first when Governor Jerry Brown launched the California Conservation Corps in 1976. By the first half of the 1980s, state-operated Corps could be found in Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.
California Conservation Corps, 1980s.
Civic Works, Inc. – Baltimore, MD, 1990s.
Corps work has evolved greatly over the years to meet changing needs. While many Corps do work similar to the original CCC – like planting trees, digging new trails, and fighting invasive species – there are now Corps that install solar panels, operate recycling programs, manage urban farms, create green stormwater infrastructure, and more.
Contemporary Corps also look more like America. More than 40 percent of enrollees identify as a person of color and more than 40 percent identify as female. An increasing number of Corps operate “affinity crews” that seek to provide safe spaces for underrepresented communities in the outdoors to serve and learn alongside peers with whom they share similar life experiences and identities. For example, there are affinity crews for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, LGBTQ+ youth and young adults, BIPOC, bi-lingual individuals, military veterans, women, and other populations.
New Jersey Youth Corps of Phillipsburg members posing with a CCC Worker Statue, 2022.
CCC veteran Mike Caruso by the CCC Worker Statue at Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth, CT. This statue is a memorial to the 3.5 million CCC men who served in the CCC. Since 1995, the statue has been placed in 77 locations across America. The CCC Worker Statue program is sponsored by CCC Legacy. Sharon Viadella
Looking ahead: a just and equitable Civilian Climate Corps
The effects of climate change are increasingly apparent. Temperatures are rising, precipitation patterns are shifting, and more extreme events – like stronger storms, larger wildfires, major floods, and record heat – are becoming more common.
For many years, there have been calls to expand the modern Corps movement to engage more young people in climate resilience work and addressing backlogged projects on public lands. These calls increased during the COVID-19 pandemic; many see a revived CCC as a way to put people to work on critical conservation projects, provide job training to America’s youth, and help protect parks during a time of increased outdoor recreation.
Since 2020, more than a dozen bills have been introduced in Congress to create a Civilian Climate Corps. In addition, on January 27, 2021, President Biden signed an executive order that called to create a Civilian Climate Corps to “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs.” The President has also included funding for a CCC in his budget proposals.
Top Row (L to R): Onondaga Earth Corps, Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa, Nevada Conservation Corps, Mile High Youth Corps.
Bottom Row (L to R): Fresno Local Conservation Corps, Los Angeles Conservation Corps, Montana Conservation Corps, X-Cel Conservation Corps.
At The Corps Network, we believe the infrastructure and experience of the existing community of nearly 150 Corps programs can be a strong foundation for a national Civilian Climate Corps (CCC).
We also believe that funding to launch a CCC already exists. The House-passed Build Back Better Act included $20 billion ($15 billion for AmeriCorps and $5 billion for the Department of Labor) for CCC participants and $10 billion (for federal land and water management agencies) for CCC projects. Because the Senate could not pass a budget reconciliation package with any funding for social services, the $20 billion for CCC participants was stripped from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), but the $10 billion for CCC projects was included. In fact, between the IRA and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), there is as much as $27 billion for climate resilience, conservation, and green infrastructure projects. A fraction of this funding could be designated to establish and support a Civilian Climate Corps.
Appalachian Mountain Club.
Conservation Corps of Long Beach.
The Corps Network supports investment in a modern CCC that centers equity and environmental justice. A national program must:
- Engage a wide range of federal, state, and local land and resource management and community development agencies to ensure CCC projects occur in all communities, particularly those that have experienced underinvestment and environmental injustice.
- Target recruitment and enrollment efforts in low-income and environmental justice communities.
- Adequately support Corpsmembers with at least a $15 minimum wage or stipend.
- Align with industry partners, unions, apprenticeships, community colleges and other postsecondary education programs. Corpsmembers should have robust opportunities to advance their education and obtain critical workforce readiness skills that can lead to good-paying jobs.
Ninety years ago, the Civilian Conservation Corps transformed our landscape, helped lift thousands of families out of hunger and poverty, and provided 3 million young men with job training, discipline, and a sense of purpose. Today, our country has an opportunity to reimagine the CCC model. A national Civilian Climate Corps can help build our climate resilience, train the conservation workers we need, and address environmental injustice.