A New Program Like FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps Could Help the Nation Fight Climate Change and Transition to Renewable Energy

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Amy Kuo saw firsthand how powerful it can be to tackle the big problems of our times in small ways when she was on a California Conservation Corps work crew a few years ago in the sweltering summer heat deep in a forest outside of Los Angeles. Kuo, now a legislative analyst for the corps, recalls slogging upstream, sometimes waist deep in water or poison oak, hauling gasoline, chainsaws and other heavy gear to clear fallen trees and debris blocking the riverbed.

The grueling work and discomfort could be overwhelming. But then the sound of the river running and the trees swaying in the wind pierced her consciousness. She recognized that she and her crew were engaged in something bigger than themselves, working in concert with the land like generations before them had done. They were making a difference in the world in a small but meaningful way.

“It’s absolutely important to think of the larger picture, be that from your own community or globally,” Kuo said.

Solving big problems with a huge workforce making lots of small contributions is the crux of an idea kicking around Washington to take on some of the most challenging issues of our times: reimagining the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. The Biden White House and members of Congress want to tweak that concept to help rebuild the nation’s workforce in a stumbling economy while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and facilitating the transition to clean energy.

But, no matter the final shape, there’s growing support for dusting off the New Deal strategy to solve contemporary challenges, such as how to train the number of workers needed for clean-energy jobs, update the nation’s water infrastructure, reduce wildland fire hazards and foster racial justice. 

The idea of addressing these challenges with a revived CCC isn’t exactly new, but there are some fresh twists.

President Joe Biden has been talking about the idea since before he took office. A week into his presidency, he directed the secretary of the interior to lead development of a strategy to mobilize a Civilian Climate Corps—“the next generation of conservation and resilience workers”—to help address the climate crisis. Then he called for spending $10 billion on the updated CCC in the $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan he proposed earlier this month.

“It’s reached a level of seriousness and intention that I have never seen before,” said Mary Ellen Sprenkel, president and CEO of the Corps Network, a national association representing the nation’s 135 existing conservation corps, mostly private-public partnerships that have adopted the corps model for job training and community service. 

Update For an Old Jobs Model 

In testimony last month before the House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee, Sprenkel told how then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the Civilian Conservation Corps to put 3 million jobless Americans back to work over nine years during the Great Depression.

“CCC Boys,” as they were called, constructed more than 125,000 miles of roads and trails, 318,000 dams, 47,000 bridges and 3,500 fire towers, according to Sprenkel’s testimony. They installed 90,000 miles of telephone lines, dug irrigation channels long enough to cross from New York to Los Angeles and back, planted billions of trees, developed 800 state and local parks and restored more than 20 million acres of habitat and rangeland. In addition, they responded to hundreds of hurricanes, floods and fires.

A member of Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa assists with a prescribed burn at Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in Minnesota in May 2019.
A member of Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa assists with a prescribed burn at Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in Minnesota in May 2019. Photo Courtesy of the Corps Network

Even as Washington is discussing updating the concept, today’s corps scattered across the country employ about 25,000 young people a year in urban and rural areas, Sprenkel testified. In 2019 they restored 1.4 million acres of habitat, planted more than 1 million trees, built 13,000 miles of trails, constructed or improved nearly 8,000 community gardens and green spaces, recycled 31,000 pounds of waste, audited the energy use and/or weatherized more than 31,000 homes and responded to 223 natural disasters.

Ramping up the new CCC with $10 billion over five years would generate 1.5 million jobs, according to a recent report from the climate advocacy group, Evergreen Action.

“Ambitious climate action can create millions of good-paying jobs across the country,” the report concluded. “The Biden administration will have the opportunity to drive that growth by training and deploying the next generation of climate workers.”

The need would be great, even if the nation didn’t increase its commitment to fight climate change and transition to clean energy. The number of infrastructure and transportation workers nearing retirement will leave nearly 3 million jobs open by 2024, Sprenkel told lawmakers, so today’s corps could be doubled or even tripled in size just to meet the need that’s already coming.

Diversifying a Once White, Male Jobs Program

The original CCC largely employed white men, 16 to 25, and veterans up to the age of 35. In its report, Evergreen described the target group as fundamentally flawed because it “perpetuated white supremacy and almost entirely excluded women, and many of the national parks in which its corps members worked were formed through violent displacement of Indigenous people.”

Key provisions of the proposals now in play include enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion. Existing conservation work programs have made big strides in that direction— the Corps Network reports that the current makeup of groups in the network is about 45 percent women and 44 percent people of color.

This focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in the new proposals has brought supporters like the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, and Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors (HECHO) into the fold.

Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, a coalition of advocacy groups, praised the conservation corps concept as “a chance to create climate resilient, self-sufficient urban centers by creating new green spaces using native plants and grasses, wetland reclamation, and training Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in careers that will reframe our relationship with the land.”

Others see the events of the last year highlighting the need for a federal corps that employs populations and serves communities that were underserved by the original CCC.

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“Because the health and economic consequences of the pandemic have fallen disproportionately on communities of color, our approach to healing and recovery must explicitly target those communities,” said Marc H. Morial, National Urban League president, in a statement. “This effort to transform and revive the Civilian Conservation Corps is exactly the kind of initiative that will help us build a more inclusive and equitable economy for the future.”

There are several bills pending in the current Congress that include the conservation corps concept. 

Bills creating a new Civilian Climate Corps, one carried in the House by Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) and in the Senate by Chris Coons (D-Del.) directs the departments of Interior and Agriculture to focus on conservation and restoration on public lands. But the legislation also would assist frontline communities adapting to climate change by finding natural climate solutions and replacing vulnerable infrastructure. And it would prioritize sending its resources to “disadvantaged communities that are often disproportionately harmed by climate change and environmental degradation, and may have fewer resources build community resilience.”

Another bill being sponsored by Neguse, this time in concert with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) focuses on federal forests and rural lands. Wyden has been pointing out since last year that there is a backlog of 2.5 million acres of hazardous fuel reduction projects that are ready to go in the nation’s forests but lack funding.

A kind of rural stimulus, it focuses on farms and forests after Colorado experienced the three largest wildfires in state history last year and hundreds of homes and businesses in Oregon burned in climate-driven wildfires that scorched over 1.2 million acres.

“The answer is putting people to work in the woods to manage our forests, supporting science-based hazardous fuels treatments, investing in the health of our watersheds and, ultimately, prioritizing keeping our communities safe,” Wyden and Neguse said in a recent letter to Biden about their bill.

“If Congress passes our bill tomorrow, forests would be more resilient and federal land managers would have the resources to reduce wildfire risk,” they wrote. “Neighborhoods would have safer homes and businesses, and cleaner air and water. Rural communities would have more jobs.”

The Wyden-Neguse legislation, according to information from Neguse’s office, has endorsements from environmental and trade groups, including, the Sierra Club, the Access Fund, the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, the Family Farm Action Alliance, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and even the Ochoco Lumber Co. in Oregon.

Bipartisan Interest, but Reluctance to Spend More Money

In many respects, the conservation-corps idea seems like it ought to be embraced by urban blue-state progressives and rural red-state conservatives alike. And polling by Data for Progress cited by Evergreen last fall suggests the idea has strong bipartisan appeal, with 77 percent of likely voters supporting the concept, including 65 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of Democrats.

It helps that the conservation corps idea has thrived during both Republicans and Democratic White House administrations and in Congress. The late Sen. John McCain and onetime Rep. Martha McSally, both Republicans of Arizona, sponsored bipartisan conservation corps legislation in 2015 and 2017—the 21st Century Conservation Corps Act—before Democrats picked up the legislation in subsequent congressional sessions.

Sprenkel, the Corps Network CEO, pointed out that Republicans have supported the programs in the past because of the aid corps members have provided in response to natural disasters. But not all Republicans are on board with the idea.  

“I do think that some, maybe more conservative Republicans, particularly those that represent extraction states, will view this as a potential either land grab or an effort to take jobs away,” she said “But, if it is designed and implemented correctly, it could be sort of a-rising-tide-lifts-all-boats [approach] and I think that’s how the administration is thinking they would like to implement the program, so every community and every person who wants to be a part of that has an opportunity.”

But it’s not clear now how much appetite Congress has for another Biden initiative that calls for so much spending after the Covid recovery stimulus bill passed earlier this year. And, so far, just a few Democrats have agreed to be cosponsors of the main climate and conservation corps bills that are on the table.

Kuo’s boss is Bruce Saito, who’s been with the California Conservation Corps for more than four decades. He’s hopeful that both Republicans and Democrats will recognize the value of expanding a program that does everything from improving energy efficiency in Harlem, to more traditional projects like trail building in Yosemite National Park.

Saito said that, since the Covid pandemic and the high unemployment it has brought, along with of civil unrest and Black Lives Matter protests that followed, there’s been a lot of discussion about the value of helping to ease lingering economic and environmental justice problems with an infrastructure package like those being proposed by Biden and congressional Democrats.

“We’ve heard it before,” he said, recalling how infrastructure proposals have languished in Washington in the past. “But, you know, I’m just so hopeful that now is the time, that it’s not just talk.”

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