Image by David Mark from Pixabay

The Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program to put the country back to work after the depression. My father was one of their members and then ,when the program ended in 1942, like many, he joined the army. President Biden is proposing a Civilian Climate Corps also to provide work but also to implement his climate initiatives.

They built limestone aqueducts in the Dan Ryan Woods and dug out the Skokie Lagoons one shovel at a time. At Starved Rock State Park, they raised lodges, and along the I&M Canal, they extended dozens of bridges. They carved out trails and cleared campgrounds and planted billions of trees, and they did all of this as part of their time in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a widely popular New Deal program now being re-imagined for the 21st century. In President Joe Biden’s January executive order aimed at addressing the climate crisis, there was a call for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps. The modern CCC would employ Americans “to conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate.” The $2 trillion infrastructure plan introduced at the end of March included $10 billion for a corps. Multiple CCC-esque bills have also been introduced in Congress, including the Renew Conservation Corps Act by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, with a parallel bill from U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, both Illinois Democrats. “I think Illinois is in a very special position here to help launch a program that could have a huge impact on people’s lives and on our infrastructure,” said Jerry Adelmann, president and CEO of the conservation nonprofit Openlands, which helped shape the Renew act. “We’re trying to build a big tent and get everybody under it.”

Illinois conservation groups are pushing this idea as the see it as a way to implement many programs. Among the ideas that have been proposed are: more green space and infrastructure in cities, much-needed assistance to eroding shorelines, habitat restoration, reforestation of dwindling canopies — and new jobs.

And, advocates say, the timing seems right. “A convergence, really, of intersecting challenges,” Adelmann said. “Climate, being one, racial justice being another, and then the economy, unemployment. These three things are coming together in powerful ways. Don’t they suggest that there should be a program?” Created in 1933 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Civilian Conservation Corps employed more than 3 million mostly young white men, offering a holistic education in conservation and requiring most of the earnings, usually about $30 a month, to be sent home to their families. When some CCC alumni returned to an old corps site in 2000 to build a park, Ted Golema, then 82, of Lyons, recalled his earlier work as repetitious, but he was glad to have a job. “I must’ve planted 900 trees in a week,” he said. “But the most important thing was we got three meals a day and a paycheck. That was a godsend to the family.”

The CCC members lived at the sites in a military style order. They were fed, received medical care, and took classes. The classes included: auto mechanics, agriculture, tree surgery, beekeeping, hospital administration and radio broadcasting. “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” Came at a time of unemployment but also when there were stressed forests, erosion, and national and state monuments were in disrepair. We have some of that today. Their works can be seen in parks and preserves through the country today,

One camp worked as far away as Mount McKinley National Park, now Denali, in Alaska. Backbone State Park, near Dundee, Iowa, was home to corps work — and has a CCC museum. New Salem, a pioneer settlement in Illinois where Abraham Lincoln once lived, was re-created by the corps about a century later. “The legacy of the CCC here and across the country in parks and preserves and national parks is just unbelievable and extensive and beautiful,” said Benjamin Cox, executive director of Friends of the Forest Preserves. “It’s just a national treasure.” Oscar Stanton De Priest, Chicago’s first Black alderman and later an Illinois representative, added an amendment to CCC legislation banning discrimination, but camps were usually segregated. Decades later, archivists are still in search of rare photos and stories representing camps that employed Native Americans and Black Americans. An image from a Michigan camp, identified in 2018, marked a small step toward recognition of the overlooked CCC experience. A photo labeled “Big Jim” was found to be of James Richardson, reportedly “a quiet, strong, hardworking rural Michigan farmer who served in World War I and went on to join the CCC.” “People remembered it, their lives were shaped by it, in some cases it introduced people to new careers,” Adelmann said.

Illinois alone had over 50 camps. 60 million trees were planted. Over 1,000 miles of trails. Flood control structures as they added to the size of state parks. The camps had newspapers that ranged from serious to not, had national news and local gossip and of course had sports.

An item in the 1934 edition of a paper from the Chicago-Lemont site announced “Officers are getting ritzy” with quarters resembling “the lobby of the Grand Hotel — well, maybe the Drake — Oh well, then, your own living room,” according to archives from the Center for Research Libraries. A column in a paper from a Mount Carroll camp, one of the few in Illinois where mostly Black workers were employed, broke down the process of soil erosion. The Fort Farce out of Sheridan ran an obituary for its company mascot, a pet rabbit named Ida Minnie, whose services were held at her owner’s tent, according to archives from the Center for Research Libraries. Her last words: “Ida lived if I could have.”

The CCC was disbanded in 1942 and some went into the Army, other into other professions. The CCC lived on as other similar conservation groups were formed such as the Youth Conservation Corps.

In later years, some of those paths appeared in Chicago Tribune obituaries: a construction worker at Glacier and Grand Teton national parks who grew up in coal mining country and went on to work as a carpenter at the Art Institute; a Bucktown native who joined the CCC and was later known as an esteemed pinball designer. Floyd Fritz, of Geneva, joined the corps at Silver Falls State Park in Oregon, preserving natural sites and clearing paths. After lightning ignited a forest fire, he and some fellow workers were lost for days; authorities reported them dead. Fritz made it out, became a popular meat cutter, and, in retirement, ended up coming full circle and working as a manager for his son’s landscaping business. Son Paul Fritz said he remembers hearing about that narrow escape, and the structure of his father’s days at the camp. He wishes his father was still around to ask more questions. “He loved gardening, he loved planting trees,” Fritz said. “It was kind of nirvana for him to be outside.”

My father did the CCC and went on to a 30-year career in the Army serving in both WWII and Korea and retiring just as the Vietnam War was building up. John Rogner, assistant director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Has links to the old CCC and hopes for the new version as a climate focused organization.

Like the original, Rogner said he’d like to see a new program put a lot of Illinois residents to work. Secondly, he hopes for investment in conservation infrastructure on the federal, state and local level. “This wouldn’t be a top-down approach,” Rogner said. “It would be largely a bottom-up approach. Getting dollars down to local communities where they know what the priorities are.” How the various proposals end up intersecting with the White House plan is still a bit of a mystery. But, said Rogner, “I think it is not a pipe dream.” “You can see how the stars are somewhat aligned toward something like what we’re all talking about here,” Rogner said. “I think the challenge will be to look at all of the proposals that are out there and take the best of them.”

There is some concern about keeping the same initials and similar name. in this partisan political climate. Another down thought is the vast difference between what the administration calls infrastructure and what the opposition considers as infrastructure. One is an expansive, all-inclusive term the other is very restrictive.

“I think the shift from a conservation corps to a climate corps is reflective of an evolution in environmental thinking,” said Anna-Lisa Castle, water policy manager for the Alliance for the Great Lakes. But, Castle said, “I think that could be unnecessarily politicized.” “And I think we’re way past the point of needing to expand that definition to include not only roads and bridges, but also things like water service, things like green infrastructure that manages stormwater and civic infrastructure, frankly,” Castle said. There’s reason to think that if political challenges can be overcome, the program could be popular and help address environmental injustice, Castle said. “I would love to see a climate corps put people in my neighborhood to work in my neighborhood,” Castle said, calling from the Southwest Side.

The structure and funding of the new CCC is still being considered but it is expected to be $55 billion over 5 years and employ up to 1 million people.

“What we wanted was a piece of legislation that was extremely flexible and comprehensive, and that could play equally well out West, down South, East, North, in territories, in tribal lands, anywhere,” Adelmnn said.

The thought is, 30 or more years after this new corps, people will be looking a changes created by the Civilian Climate Corps as we do today with the Civilian Conservation Corps. This article was primarily focused on Chicago and the mid-west as it was in Illinois that the president spoke and that many in Illinois favor this plan. It is something that will help high school and less graduates and if the education part is included they can received GED’s and then college or trade credentials.

Civilian Conservation Corps to Civilian Climate Corps
Tagged on: