Reviving the Civilian Conservation Corps


On a train trip across the United States, the sight of millions of dead trees in the Sierra Nevada and Rockies is as shocking as the homeless encampments that have cropped up along Amtrak’s right-of-ways and on the sidewalks of cities like New York. 

I left the Bay Area in mid-October, just as it was engulfed in thick, toxic smoke erupting from uncontained wildfires to the north. The dingy pall recalled the Mount Vision and Oakland Hills firestorms of the 1990s, and the holocaust that swept down Mount Tamalpais into Mill Valley in 1929. Living as I do amid trees succumbing to beetles and sudden oak death on the Inverness Ridge, I see how sick our forests have become, and know it is only a matter of time before they ignite.

Unless, that is, we can revive one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s best ideas. 

Roosevelt described himself as a grower of trees on his expansive Hudson River estate. He was, among many other things, a knowledgeable forester. Shortly after his inauguration in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, he persuaded Congress to create what he called the Civilian Conservation Corps to solve two crises at once—employing wasted human resources to reclaim wasted natural resources. 

During its decade-long run, the corps employed three and half million young men to plant over three billion trees. Racially integrated outside the South 15 years before President Truman desegregated the Armed Forces, the corps recruited jobless, indigent and often illiterate young men and gave them nutritious food, health care, education and hard work in some of the most beautiful places in the nation and its territories. 

The “boys” fought beetle infestation, blister rust and forest fires. They conserved soil, and were available to help in natural disasters. They also left a vast legacy of superb rustic structures in national and state parks and wildlife refuges (for whose expansion during the ’30s they were largely responsible). 

Many conservation corps vets recalled their public service as among the happiest times of their lives, and attributed the discipline it gave them to their successes later in life.  

After decades of tax cuts, our national, state and local jurisdictions are incapable of dealing with the ever-growing danger of conflagrations such as the ones that recently devastated the north counties. Representative Marcy Kaptur, of Ohio, has introduced the 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps Act that would, once again, address both mass unemployment and our sick forests. It deserves our support so that we do not see an encore of what has so tragically befallen our neighbors and friends to the north. 


Gray Brechin is the founder and project scholar of the Living New Deal, based at the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Geography. A resident of Inverness, he is the author of “Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.”