Joe Biden wants to revive FDR’s Conservation Corps
THEOOK IS from the benches atop the Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Denver skyline is barely visible in the distance. The venue, surrounded by sandstone cliffs, is where many Colorado residents saw their first gig and fitness junkies gather for early morning yoga. Less well known is the role the amphitheater has played in American history. It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps of President Franklin Roosevelt (CCC), a New Deal program that put 3 million men to work building infrastructure and parks during the Great Depression. Today, the “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” as the corps was called, may be getting a facelift in the 21st century. President Joe Biden, who did not hesitate to express his admiration for RAD or his desire to emulate the New Deal, wants to finance a new version of the CCC aimed at combating climate change and its effects.
There is no shortage of work to be done. In 2020, nearly $ 12 billion in maintenance was needed in U.S. national parks. Western states want to increase controlled burning and forest thinning so that fires don’t turn into mega-fires. The infrastructure bill signed by Mr Biden also serves as a climate to-do list, allocating money to clean up abandoned mines, help communities prepare for and recover from natural disasters and to install charging stations for electric cars.
Mr Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps is reportedly funded by the $ 1.7 billion “Build Back Better” bill that lawmakers are haggling over. Currently, about $ 15 billion of the roughly $ 500 billion spent on climate action would create 300,000 jobs through AmeriCorps, a national service agency. Skeptics say the corps mission lacks focus. What exactly matters as conservation or resilience anyway? John Barrasso, a Republican senator from Wyoming, has interpreted the nickname “Army of Trees” literally, claiming that the body is a front for lefties to “wage war” on the fossil fuel industry.
To get an idea of what a redesign is CCC would, in fact, look to Colorado. The state recently announced the creation of its own climate body, which supporters hope will serve as a pilot for the federal agenda. He awarded the Colorado Youth Corps Association (CYCA) a new AmeriCorps grant worth $ 1.7 million per year for three years, creating 240 new jobs for young people. The idea that the CCC is a brand new program is not true, says Scott Segestrom, executive director of the CYCA: “It builds on the existing infrastructure. Each year, between 1,400 and 1,800 people serve in the Colorado Conservation Corps. The new grant will only swell their ranks. Funding for a federal body would similarly strengthen existing programs across the country.
Climate work conjures up images of physical labor in the hinterland. In Colorado, some new body members will train as wildland firefighters or pull up invasive plants that suck in more water than the parched West can afford. But the Mile High Youth Corps, which serves 23 counties in the Colorado Front Range, also provides an example of the work a federal climate body could do in cities and suburbs. Workers often install energy and water efficient equipment, such as toilets or high efficiency shower aerators, in poor communities.
This all sounds good in theory. But there are barriers to implementing a program like Colorado’s in every state. When Roosevelt launched the CCC in 1933, some 13 million Americans were out of work. The Depression destroyed livelihoods and farmers abandoned their fields as dust storms choked the plains. The body was supposed to lift its workers and their families out of poverty. Shannon Dennison, a curator who restores the old CCC camp near Red Rocks, points out that corps members were required to send home $ 25 of the $ 30 they earned each month.
In the early months of the pandemic, when at least 20 million Americans were unemployed, the circumstances seemed comparable. But now companies across all industries are scrambling to find workers. Even supporters of Mr Biden’s body admit that it will be difficult to recruit enough young people to work in labor-intensive jobs for low pay. Joe Neguse, a Colorado Democratic congressman who led the campaign for the CCC in the House of Representatives, says increasing wages and benefits are crucial to recruiting a more diverse body than that of the 1930s, made up of mostly single white men. Still, half of Americans under 45 polled by Data for Progress, a left-wing pollster, said they would consider working in a climate body. Some may soon have their chance.■
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “The New Army of Trees”