The Civilian Coastal Conservation Corps
By Paul J. Baicich
(originally published in June 2020. Re-posted in February 2021)
The Problem at Hand and a Solution within Reach
Crises often produce remarkable creativity. Facing each recent economic crisis — the financial crisis and subsequent recession of 2008 and our current and unique Covid-19 downturn — we Americans have looked to the Great Depression for answers. It remains an invaluable experience to mine for potential models in getting the country back on its feet and putting Americans to work.
In response to the Great Depression, an alphabet soup of creative programs was launched by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), the National Youth Administration (NYA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) met the challenges of that time. Roosevelt created these in response to unemployment exceeding 25%, with the country reeling from disaster in shock and despair.
On March 21, 1933 Roosevelt made his request to Congress for an Emergency Conservation Work Act, launching what is now known as the CCC. This Act had two essential purposes: finding immediate and useful conservation work for millions of unemployed young men and providing for the restoration of the country’s depleted natural resources. Through the CCC, these dual purposes were addressed in one comprehensive program, well described by scholars like Neil M. Maher (in Nature’s New Deal, Oxford University Press 2008) and Robert D. Leighninger, Jr (in Long-range Public Investment — The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal, South Carolina Press, 2007).
Congress passed the CCC legislation just 10 days after Roosevelt made his request. Eight days after that, the first employee was hired. By April 17, the very first CCC camp was established in Virginia, and by July 1, there were an astounding 1,463 working camps across the country with 250,000 junior enrollees, 28,000 veterans, 14,000 Native Americans, and 25,000 experienced and skilled local hires who would play a training and administrative role. Each enrollee working on conservation projects was provided shelter, clothing, food, together with a modest stipend most of which had to be sent home to the enrollee’s family. Through its nine-year existence, this New Deal effort put three million young men — mostly ages 17–26 — to work. Between 1934 and 1943 the CCC created more than 800 new state parks, improved or created over 90,000 acres of campgrounds, constructed over 142,000 miles of foot and horse trails (including major segments of the Appalachian and Pacific Coast hiking trails), built more than 40,000 bridges, constructed 4,500 rustic cabins and hiking shelters, strung over 89,000 miles of telephone wiring, built 168 emergency landing fields, stocked almost 1 billion fish, and planted 2.3 billion trees (more, if you include those planted in cooperation with the WPA in the creation of impressive “shelterbelts” of trees to mitigate the impact of the devastating Dust Bowl across the Great Plains.)
The current Covid-19 health-and-economic crisis has only strengthened the discussion of what a jobs bill might look like once we crawl out of this abyss. We now can see that the nation, and the world, can respond quickly and in a coordinated way to pressing problems.
Modern day policy makers have wondered whether similar programs could lift us out of more recent economic set-backs as well. For instance, former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, suggested that the U.S. could pursue a comprehensive jobs program that matched the audacity of Roosevelt’s, including a new WPA and CCC. However, once the Obama Administration got the Recovery Act and its infrastructure stimulus passed in 2009, the call for any revived CCC-like effort dissipated. Such a dalliance into any new CCC, however, would have to avoid at the outset three obvious CCC drawbacks that would be intolerable today — the CCC’s male-only participation, its segregated units, and its near-military makeup.
That being said, we can fast forward to January 2015, when Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) proposed a trillion-dollar jobs bill over five years. It was bursting with bold infrastructure proposals for roads, bridges, transit systems, wastewater treatment plants, airports, seaports, dams, levees, and other “bricks-and-mortar” projects. Once again, the hint of a CCC-approach appeared within the Sanders proposal, with a call for $15 billion over five years in boosting our National Park System. This was bigger than what anyone in the Obama Administration had ever dared to propose, but still short of a sweeping CCC-type jobs and environment program, however the bill failed to see the light of day. Since then, repeated proposals for a Green New Deal have arisen in the U.S. A pair of Congressional resolutions — House Resolution 109 and S. Res. 59 — sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), respectively, aka The Green New Deal Resolution, drew the most attention. Those two proposals revived discussion about combating climate change and economic inequality simultaneously with something akin to a CCC.
The current Covid-19 health and economic crisis has only strengthened the discussion of what a jobs bill might look like once we crawl out of this abyss. We now can see that the nation, and the world, can respond quickly and in a coordinated way to pressing problems. Proposals for how to recover from the pandemic and economic downturn abound. Once again, Senators like Markey and Sanders and House members aplenty are making regular references to the CCC as America considers options for the future.
We are today 80 years wiser ecologically than we were in 1933. At the time, wildlife management and ecology were in their infancy, but now these fields have matured and the experiments of the CCC have paid rich dividends in expanding our practical knowledge in how to manage and restore ecosystems.
Improving on the old CCC, one might imagine three modern branches to best suit our post-Covid-19, climate-threatened world. One could be rural-oriented to lift neglected rural communities out of poverty and despair, another urban-concentrated to help improve environmental quality and thus human well being in cities, and a third coastal, to protect the country’s most valuable ecosystems and allow them to deliver precious ecosystem services to the nation and the world.
A Coastal CCC could be front-and-center in helping the country cope with sea level rise and hurricane threats. Along the East and Gulf Coasts in particular, there are dire needs to protect barrier islands, stabilize and re-vegetate associated sand dunes, and restore coastal and bay grasses (submerged aquatic vegetation,) oyster beds, salt marshes, and mangroves. This will aid in climate change and hurricane preparedness, but it will also make coastal industries more profitable, and lessen the costs that municipalities and coastal counties have to bear in fighting sea level rise and erosion.
A Coastal CCC could also enhance ‘blue carbon habitats’ that sequester carbon and thus mitigate against our ever-continuing carbon emissions. Such blue carbon habitats, including marshes, mangroves, and sea grasses also help protect communities from floods and storms, improve water quality, and support recreational and commercial fisheries. Thus, coastal wetland restoration is a win-win for both mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and protecting coastal economies, and a CCC-led coastal restoration program could employ thousands of people.
Specifically, the Coastal CCC could target the recovery of submerged aquatic vegetation, improving water quality and expanding the habitat needed by vulnerable young fish and shellfish. Similarly, the CCC could target the restoration of oyster beds — a task that was part of the historic WPA and CCC function in multiple places. Both the balance of marine life and the maintenance of a unique industry of oystermen (and the broader communities in which they live) require it.
Another obvious mission for a new Coastal CCC is cleaning up plastic pollution and other marine debris. With increasing and threatening plastic production, poor levels of recycling, and insufficient waste management, between four and 12 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, reportedly enough to cover every foot of coastline on the planet. Beach clean-up could employ unskilled workers as well as youth, turning environmental enhancement into an educational opportunity. But even more important is to stop plastics at their source, before the debris ever reaches the ocean. Such a workplan would connect the Coastal CCC with other conservation initiatives, as well as the other CCC branches operating in rural and urban areas (including deep inland and far upstream) to confront the plastic problem where it starts.
To become a reality, the new Coastal CCC could work alongside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a mutually beneficial arrangement. The Coastal CCC could also work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has many billions of dollars of backlogged coastal project that it might reassign or share with a new CCC involving beach, estuary, and barrier island restoration. But how to get from an ambitious idea to a national program in practice?
Transitioning to a New CCC
In his previously held position as Governor of New York, Roosevelt launched an outdoor resources program in 1931 called the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA), almost immediately creating 10,000 conservation-related jobs. These jobs were mostly in forestry, for out of work New Yorkers. By the end of 1932, right after the national election and before Roosevelt was inaugurated, the TERA program was already aiding 25,000 enrollees.
Clearly, Roosevelt considered TERA a prototype for the CCC, and TERA was effectively a dry run for the much more ambitious project. Once in office, the new President immediately proposed putting about 250,000 young men to work by the first summer of his administration to “conserve our precious natural resources.”
For many decades now, smaller state-based and NGO-associated models have existed. In the late 1950s the Student Conservation Association (SCA) launched projects for college students in National Parks and National Forests. The Youth Conservation Corps — a joint effort of the Department of the Interior and the USFA Forest Service — hired youth for summer work outdoors. At its height during the mid-1970s, the YCC enrolled some 32,000 young people across the country. From 1977 to 1982, a larger federal program, the Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC), provided some young people with year-round conservation-related employment.
By 1981–1982, both the YCC and the YACC were virtually eliminated due to federal budget cuts. Still, the concept of a natural resources Corps had been proven, and many states began to initiate these programs directly. By mid-1980s, state-operated Corps for youth could be found in Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin, with California launching the first Urban Conservation Corps in 1983. Across the 1980s — and into the 1990s — despite the absence of federal funding, new state and local Corps continued to spring up, here and there, across the nation.
There was at least one ambitious federal plan in the 1980s for a modified revival of the CCC, an effort that deserves revisiting. It was the American Conservation Corps Act, passed in the House of Representatives in early 1983 and then by the House in the fall of 1984 with amendments. The final bill called for spending $225 million over three years ($579 million in today’s dollars or the equivalent of $193 million per year for three years) to establish an American Conservation Corps under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior.
Modeled after the CCC, it was intended to “implement conservation, rehabilitation, and improvement projects on public lands and Indian lands.” Supporters estimated that it would provide work for 18,500 youth in the first year. But President Ronald Reagan pocket vetoed the bill, claiming that the American Conservation Corps would have created “temporary make-work” jobs, which he declared were part of a “discredited approach to youth unemployment.” That is the closest we have seen to a revived — although limited — CCC, a proposal that actually reached the President’s desk.
Far more modest efforts have occasionally arisen: in response to the April 2010, Deepwater Horizon oil-rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the RESTORE Act provided for $7 million to implement a Gulf Corps program for ecological restoration across the Gulf states. A private/public partnership led by NOAA, the Corps provided for short-term employment for local citizens, as well as skills training and experience in restoration-based jobs in the areas of exotic vegetation removal, seaside native planting, species monitoring, management of invasive species, and more.
In 2014, President Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, invoked the legacy of the CCC in recommending a “21st Century Conservation Service Corps” that could give tens of thousands of young people and veterans the opportunity to serve the country and enhance their lives through work in the outdoors. Her goals were to raise $20 million in private funds by 2017 to recruit young Americans for a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21 CSC).
Sometimes known as the Public Land Corps, 21 CSC has existed, along with the older and more experienced organization, The Corps Network, as an ambitious attempt to connect similar nonprofits or are operated by units of state or local government. Since 1985, The Corps Network has continued to assemble a loose association of about 130 corps-organizations across the country providing young adults and veterans work through projects on public lands and in rural and urban communities.
These more localized programs have built an essential base of action and valuable experience which can benefit a broader and more comprehensive effort. By and large, many of these state-reliant ventures have worked well– transient and modest as they are. Imagine a situation where the collective knowledge from these varied transitional projects could actually flourish, could be “shovel-ready”. The circumstances today are ripe for this sort of approach — a true Solution within Reach.
Advancing the Discussion
Taking a page from the Green New Deal proposals, a larger infrastructure discussion is sure to include aspects of spending for creative “green” components. The recurring calls for wind-and-solar jobs are to be expected on the green side, as well they should. But a new CCC is not simply an add-on to the wind-and-solar renewables argument; it should be integral to an ambitious proposal. Indeed, it cannot be viewed as “the other green infrastructure jobs program,” but rather a way to restore the land, and restore the people.
From its very start, the CCC was confronting a country that abused and over-exploited its natural resources. The looming Dust Bowl — which was to reach it apogee in three successive waves (1934, 1936, and 1939–1940) — was proof enough of a real crisis on the land. Drained wetlands, over-cut forests, and exhausted farm soil only exacerbated the pervasive industrial crisis of the Great Depression in America.
Today we have equally devastating environmental crises, with parched forests ready to burst into flames and threatening a wildlands-urban interface; spreading invasive plants; the elimination of vital pollinator habitat; the ongoing destruction of 10,000-year-old virgin grasslands; the destruction of remote parks and wildlands by encroaching suburban development; neglected city parks; and along our threatened coasts, the erosion of barrier beaches, the loss of vital coastal wetlands, the pollution caused by run-off of toxins and waste; and so much more. A jobs program in the wake of Covid-19 could not only restore economic well-being and dignity to workers, but also help make nature as resilient as possible. And healthy nature makes for a healthy planet — and populations of humans better able to confront the next pandemic or economic shock to come along.
The lessons of the original Civilian Conservation Corps could help frame the dialogue on the suitability of a retooled jobs program to enhance our coasts and oceans, complementing what needs to be done on land and in our cities.
There may be opportunities to reinvent a new kind of green movement in the context of a changing and transitional post-Covid-19 economy. What we have already witnessed over the last 80 years has been a shift from traditional conservation, morphing into environmentalism and then into climate change activism.
At each of these important changes, a new set of goals, methods, and vocabularies have been adopted, each building on their predecessor movement. We are on the cusp of solidifying just such a change, but only if we consciously make the best use of our experiences and opportunities.
Neil Maher, in his insightful Nature’s New Deal, clarified that the development of the CCC transformed the very perception of what conservation was. A new CCC, in conjunction with accompanying serious green transition, could likewise re-calibrate what comes next. We could witness , and be part of, a real culture shift. While building a new CCC and a climate-ready economy (relying heavily on wind and solar), real connections could be created between forces in traditional conservation, environmentalism, climate change activism, and environmental justice that have, more often than not, developed apart.
Whether a move toward these possibilities actually happens depends on how prepared concerned parties (professional environmental advocates and educators, academic economists, labor leaders, federal and state conservation agency administrators, and human rights champions) are ready for change. Such change rests on a combination of essential and visionary alternatives. The lessons of the original CCC could help frame the dialogue on the suitability of a retooled jobs program to enhance our coasts and oceans, complementing what needs to be done on land and in our cities. Whether we are able to make this solution a reality depends on how all stakeholders in recovery can connect with each other, and especially with those young people looking for creative work today, the people already waiting for the change, and the very people that will inherit the future we make.
MORE TO CONSIDER
For those readers looking into sources and details on the relevancy of New Deal projects today, and on the existing network of smaller CCC-like projects and institutions that continue to exist:
THE LIVING NEW DEAL is a project dedicated to the historical work of uncovering the immense riches of New Deal public works. Insofar as there is no national register that exists of what the New Deal built, this effort attempts to fill that niche. The Living New Deal's team is creating a national database of information, documents, photographs, and personal stories about the public works made possible by the New Deal. It's all about research, presentation, and education. Visit livingnewdeal.org.
THE CORP NETWORK is a meeting place for locally-based organizations that engage young adults (generally ages 16 – 25) and veterans (up to age 35) in service projects that address outdoor, conservation, and community needs. Established in 1985, The Corps Network is the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps. It was preceded by the Student Conservation Association - launched in the late 1950s - which has been regularly placing at least a few thousand young people in conservation internships and summer crews in service to the environment. The Corps Network could easily function as the bridge to a new and far more sweeping CCC if one were to arise out of the discussions for a Green New Deal. You can find information on the Corps and its member projects at corpsnetwork.org.
The Civilian Coastal Conservation Corps is a contribution to the Solutions within Reach initiative, a new focus for the World Ocean Forum. Curated by Dr. Tundi Agardy, the Forum is designed to engage with thinkers, scientists, decision-makers, activists and global citizens as a means to enable a conversation about new ideas to those that are proving ineffectual and unsustainable in the face of this pandemic.
Learn more at worldoceanforum.org.