A new book details the history of a program that educated and employed millions of Americans and established one of our most precious resources.
In a remarkable new book entitled Our Mark on this Land: A Guide to the Legacy of the CCC in America’s Parks, Ren and Helen Davis remind us of just how powerful and long lasting visionary leadership can be. The book details the enormous impact that Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) had on our country, not only through the massive reforestation programs that resulted in the planting of over 3 billion trees, but also through the restoration and expansion of one our nation’s most treasured public resources: our state and national parks.
Over the course of its 10-year history, the CCC employed over 3 million men in what the authors describe as the largest peacetime mobilization of manpower in U.S. history. What is perhaps even more remarkable is that this mobilization began within the first 100 days of FDR’s administration, in the midst of the worst economic crisis in American history and at a time when there was little to no state apparatus to launch such a program. Moreover, like many of the New Deal programs, the CCC was multifaceted. It was designed to accomplish multiple goals simultaneously and was in fact much more than a conservation program. It was also a youth unemployment program, an urban assistance program, and — as is largely unknown — an educational program.
Within months of its inception, CCC administrations discovered that there was a critical need for technical training and, above all, basic literacy instruction. As such, CCC workers were also tasked with building their own classrooms where CCC employees could take remedial classes. As the CCC program progressed, more advanced instruction was offered in a variety of subjects, including mathematics and history, along with more basic technical and vocational training. These programs also helped to employ many jobless teachers. Over time, the educational mission of the CCC became extremely popular and by the late 1930s more than 90 percent of the CCC workers were enrolled in some sort of educational program.
But it is the more tangible work of the CCC that is so magnificently catalogued in this book. As the Davises note, the legacy of the CCC lives on in hundreds of parks across the country. Here, CCC workers cut thousands of miles of trails, built innumerable bridges and roads, designed and constructed thousands of rustic cottages and other buildings, and helped transform the National Parks Service into a truly national agency. Most important, however, was the effect that the CCC had on the ethos of the nation. For in sponsoring what the authors call a “second golden age” of conservation, and by providing through their labor unprecedented access to our nation’s wild places, the CCC fostered greater appreciation for the preservation and enhancement of our nation’s natural resources. And as more recent scholarship reveals, it also helped sow the seeds of the modern environmental movement.
At a time when the United States is once again struggling with high unemployment and growing level of poverty, especially among the urban poor, launching a program like the CCC to help restore our nation’s blighted and impoverished inner cities makes sense. Such a program could do much to help restore both the physical and ethical challenges we face as nation. It would also provide the millions of young people trapped in the despair of poverty with meaningful employment, a chance to further education, and the one thing that FDR was determined to provide above all else: hope for the future.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938. He is also the co-author with Henry Henderson of FDR and the Environment.