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Archive for March, 2012

The following is an op-ed piece written by FHS staff historian James G. Lewis that appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times on February 19, 2012.

In his State of the Union address last month and again at a recent press event, President Obama touted the idea of “a new conservation program that would help put veterans to work rebuilding trails, roads and levees on public lands,” according to the Associated Press. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the 1930s could be viewed as a model for what the administration will try to accomplish through its “Veterans Jobs Corps.” The administration will propose spending $1 billion that could put an estimated 20,000 veterans to work restoring habitat and eradicating invasive species, among other activities, the AP report stated.

Why would the Obama administration want a new conservation corps? Perhaps because nearly 80 years after the first one was established, we are still reaping its benefits. The CCC was established in 1933 primarily to do two things: put unemployed men to work and to help restore the land. In 1933, the unemployment rate was 25 percent; national forests and national parks had a backlog of projects and restoration needs but lacked the manpower and money to do the work. States like South Carolina had no state park system for similar reasons.

Civilian Conservation Corps trail maintenance crew in the Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina, in 1937. (FHS Photo Collection, MAC119)

The combination of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the devastated agricultural sector forced thousands to abandon their farms and leave behind depleted lands. President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration bought up millions of acres of this land and put the CCC to work restoring it. The result was an expansion of the Eastern national forests from around 5 million acres in 1932 to 19 million acres by 1942 and their restoration. No one is suggesting that the federal government buy land, but the idea of restoring the land as FDR did is one worth serious discussion and consideration.

The CCC operated from 1933 until 1942 and employed 3 million men between the ages of 18 and 25 (even though first lady Eleanor Roosevelt supported its establishment, a female-only version of the CCC didn’t last long because of cultural and gender mores at the time).

The workers lived in camps and were given “three hots and a cot” along with job training and the opportunity to fill gaps in their education as well as their growling stomachs. The men of the CCC constructed trails, buildings, dams and roads, and planted millions of trees that helped restore exhausted land. South Carolina used CCC muscle and money to build its state park system from scratch. In North Carolina, the CCC built the Blue Ridge Parkway and roads and trails in the national forests. The CCC has often been called one of the greatest New Deal programs, and with good reason. While healing abused forests and fields, the men gained their health and self-esteem; they restored the land, and the land restored them.

Today, the unemployment rate may be slowly coming down, but the so-called “underemployment rate” — those who are unemployed plus those either working part time but would prefer full-time work, or have stopped searching for jobs — stubbornly remains above 15 percent.

Infrastructure around the country is dire need of repair — bridges need replacing, and overgrown forests need thinning. Ironically, a present-day Veterans Conservation Corps would be undoing some of the damage of the original CCC by thinning forests and removing invasive species planted to stop soil erosion. It might even be replacing bridges and buildings built in the 1930s.

The thousands of troops returning home face a difficult job market but possess practical experience in building and repairing infrastructure. Many soldiers have spent years “nation-building” in Iraq and Afghanistan; the United States has spent billions of dollars on those endeavors while our own infrastructure has gone neglected, with catastrophic results, like the Minnesota bridge collapse in 2007, for example.

The Obama administration recognizes that a strong America in the future requires hard work now. A Veterans Jobs Corps program would be an investment in the future of America’s youth and environment. Let them restore the land, and the land will restore them.

James G. Lewis is the staff historian at the Forest History Society and the author of “The Forest Service and the Greatest Good: A Centennial History.” To view the newsprint version of this, click here: CCC op-ed.

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The new issue of Forest History Today is now available. It’s all about the Weeks Act, which turns 101 years old today. Forest History Society members have received a copy as a benefit of their membership. If you’re not a member but would like to purchase a copy, contact Andrea by email or by calling 919-682-9319. At $4 plus shipping, it’s quite the bargain, like the Weeks Act itself. You can read a few articles from the issue by visiting the FHT webpage. Below is the editor’s note.

Recently I was rereading a special issue of Runner’s World magazine on trail running. It came out around the same time as the centennial of the Weeks Act, March 1, 2011. I find that when I reread something months later, I look at it with fresh eyes and often pick up on ideas that I may have missed the first time. Plus I love the feeling that comes from reading something again, of letting the information really seep into my marrow, so that it becomes a part of me.

One article was about what the author called the “crown jewels” of running trails around the United States. What struck me this time—now reading it after I had absorbed information about the consequence and legacy of the Weeks Act into my bones—is how many of the trails are on eastern national forests, trails like the Shut-in Trail in the Pisgah National Forest, on land once owned by George Vanderbilt. And I thought: These forests are in America’s marrow, in many ways. The first national forests created under the Weeks Act run along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, but the need for and desire to protect those lands must have been in the marrow of conservationists a hundred years ago. And it is still today.

I think that desire to preserve forests is part of the American character. The United States was the first country to create a national park, an action taken to protect the unique landscape of the Yellowstone area. The landscapes protected by the Weeks Act should also be celebrated. They may lack the wonder and spectacle of Yellowstone, but they have a beauty that draws millions of visitors every year. Most people may never walk through those landscapes, those Weeks Act forests; they may even drive through them oblivious to the fact that they are in a national forest, save the green and white sign that says “entering” and “leaving” with little fanfare, if they notice them at all. But when they turn on their faucets and there is clean water, or they step outside and cannot see the air they breathe, they are enjoying the benefits of those forests. And it’s because of the courage and vision of the men and women who have come before us, who recognized or simply acted upon an urge to protect those lands, that we have those forests today. It’s because of the courage of today’s conservationists that we continue to have those lands—their vision for how to expand those areas will be recognized and celebrated by future generations, too. Several of them are sharing their ideas on the pages of this magazine.

If you can, visit those forests. Walk, hike, bike, or run a trail; fish or hunt or camp on those lands; paddle down a river or on a lake that exists because the forests still exist. If you can’t get to those forests, bring them into your home—buy products derived from those forests and made by those who make their living from it, support an organization that fights to preserve them, read about the land and its amazing flora and fauna, or watch a film about them and revel in their grandeur. As for me, I’ll keep reading about the men and women who have dedicated their lives to the cause of conservation, who helped preserve the land that holds the trails on which I want to run, and absorbing that information into my marrow….

This special issue is the largest we’ve ever done, with three times the number of articles as a normal issue. Because of that, I could write two more pages describing the individual contributors and their articles. Instead, I’ll close with this: at the beginning of 2011, I thought I knew a great deal about the Weeks Act. After reading these articles, I now know more about its history and its future. Not only that, but reading them has reinvigorated my love of the national forests. I hope you’ll feel the same way, too.

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