Bringing the CCC Into the 21st Century

The Department of the Interior wants to update a successful conservation model for the modern era.
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The Department of the Interior wants to update a successful conservation model for the modern era.
civilian conservation corps

The Civilian Conservation Corps by Barry Otwell. Photo: flickr/zero12741

After the Wall Street Crash and collapse of U.S. banks in 1929, hundreds of thousands of Americans were homeless, roaming the country looking for work. As poverty and disease flourished, there was also an environmental crisis: Unchecked logging cleared major forests, terrible floods hit land and water supplies, and overgrazing, drought, and winds were depleting fertile topsoil in the Great Plains. With unemployment hovering around 25 percent in 1933, FDR spearheaded the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as a pick-me-up for the workforce and a facelift for public lands. As the largest federally funded conservation program the world had seen, the CCC pitted a “tree army” of 3 million men to build trails, dig irrigation ditches, and fight fire—infusing the economy with critical dollars while maintaining forests, grasslands, and parks.

The effort was a big success, but funding dwindled in 1942 after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the country’s focus shifted to war.

In 2013, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell laid out her own plan to revamp the idea of the CCC and reinvigorate domestic land stewardship by engaging future generations with the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC). But, unlike in the ’30s, Jewell doesn’t need to consider such massive unemployment.

Instead, her 21CSC aims to introduce veterans and young Americans—especially minorities and at-risk kids—to nature, outdoor jobs, and public service in hopes that they’ll develop a lifelong passion for the outdoors and a sense of responsibility to care for it. “I showed up for my first day of trail work in 2011 with flip-flops, a Coachella T-shirt, and immense anxiety about setting up my first tent,” says Laurel Reisman, 28, now a leader of Colorado’s Mile High Youth Corps. “I’d never visited a national park, much less backpacked or camped. After five months working on a maintenance crew deep in Kings Canyon National Park, I developed a pure, unwavering love for the mountains. I owe my way of life, sense of community, and outdoor skills to the CCC Backcountry Trails Program. I definitely wouldn’t be hiking the Pacific Crest Trail this summer had it not been for this experience.”

Unlike the original CCC program, however, the 21CSC relies heavily on partnerships with private businesses, and Secretary Jewell has been hitting the fundraising circuit. Her office has contributed $65.8 million, but her 2017 private funding goal of $20 million is already 80 percent complete thanks to donations from REI ($1 million), Camelbak, Thule, Backwoods, and The North Face. America has made a big investment in the outdoors since the ’30s. Now, the outdoor industry is investing in America.