At the height of the Great Depression, with national employment soaring to over 25%, President Franklin D. Roosevelt championed federal jobs programs that put Americans to work—part of the New Deal that used public works projects to ignite the economy and stem unprecedented job loss. Among those programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) combined economic recovery with environmental conservation. CCC workers developed state and national parks, managed national forests, planted trees, and prevented and fought wildfires. Through its nine years in existence, from 1933 until 1942, the CCC employed about 3 million men, providing desperately needed wages as well as other necessities including shelter and food.
This week, with the nation fighting a pandemic amid another economic crisis, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin introduced legislation to revive the CCC, but in a more inclusive way. The RENEW Conservation Corps Act would create 1 million jobs over the course of five years, empowering and employing Americans to work on conservation projects nationwide for up to a year. And while the original CCC employed only men and housed workers in segregated camps, RENEW requires that participants reflect the demographics of the communities where they are working.
A revived CCC, with a mission of protecting and stewarding the environment, could also help mitigate the impact of climate change, an existential crisis that only worsens the sort of record-breaking wildfires currently devastating the American west, burning millions of acres and smothering cities in ash and smoke. Federal CCC workers can provide natural climate solutions by planting native trees that store and capture carbon, and can build more resilient natural systems through restoring shorelines, protecting wetlands, and maintaining dams, among other conservation efforts.