Oct 30, 2020 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Claire Barber | Photo by Patil Khakhamian

In wake of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a voluntary public works relief program that helped to build our trails and open spaces, and especially our National Parks, as we know them today. 

In brief, it was a massive worker program that put 3 million men to work — many former military — with modest earnings they could send home to their families. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are calling for a reboot of the program, including former Vice President and presidential candidate Joe Biden, in what he calls the Civilian Climate Corps. 

Biden’s CCC would include women and people of color. In FDR’s CCC, people of color were segregated and women participated in the lesser-known “She – She – She” camps. This all-female program provided more vocational training (i.e. housekeeping, typing, filing) rather than hard labor in the outdoors. 

Biden’s plan spans the gamut of making the U.S. more resilient to climate change while putting what the administration claims would be “good paying union jobs” into the economy. CCC tasks would include forest management to increase wildfire resilience and forest carbon intake, restoration of wetlands, planting trees to reduce heat stress in urban neighborhoods, restoration of coastal ecosystems, and building hiking and biking trails, among other efforts. 

While political gridlock may make a CCC-esc plan feel impossible, there’s already a lot going on in the U.S. that harkens back to FDR’s original efforts. 

Americorps, or the Corporation for National and Community Service, is one of them. Americorps members can serve locally or all over the country, focusing on projects like poverty alleviation, disaster relief, and environmental restoration. Americorps often funds positions in local non-profits, including support for Conservation Corps across the country. 

State-wide and regional programs, such as the Utah Conservation Corps, Southwest Conservation Corps, Texas Conservation Corps, Earthcorps, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, Alaska Conservation Corps, and Montana Conservation Corps, among dozens of others, are pretty much acting as the CCC in disguise — just without major federal coordination. 

So what’s it like? 

The pay on corps are low and while working under Americorps you are technically a “volunteer,” so the “pay” is, in reality, a living stipend. Crews and work vary, but intensity, or at least long hours, can be expected. Chainsaw crews, survey crews, invasive specifies removal, crosscut saw crews, and traditional trail crews all help make up the conservation corps ecosystem. 

California’s Backcountry Trails Program may be the most infamous. Crews spend six months in California’s remotest regional settings, resupplied by helicopter. The job description doesn’t mess around: “It is a five-plus month commitment to intense work in miserable living conditions for minimal pay. Make no mistake — THIS IS NOT A PAID VACATION.”

Oh, and I’ve heard rumors that crews in Alaska roll sticks of butter in brown sugar to eat before they go to bed because they burn so many calories shivering. This is 100% hyperbole and not verified, but the lore at least speaks to the physicality of the work. 

All in all, a CCC-esc program could be an answer to the COVID-19 economic crisis. Just look at the success of participants in FDR’s program, where“[d]isadvantaged youths who participated in government-run Civilian Conservation Corps activities between 1937 and 1942 lived longer and earned more than their Depression-era peers,” according to the National Bureau for Economic Research

In short, my point isn’t whether crews roll lipids in sugar or not, but that these crews exist and a national program has succeeded in the past. Why not now?We have the bones for a new CCC, we have the workforce, there’s some political will — is there enough? 

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