The Civilian Conservation Corps — A 70-Year Legacy
March 28, 2003
There aren’t many signs marking their achievements and their numbers are dwindling daily. But the work undertaken by the enrollees of the Civilian Conservation Corps contributed much to California, and is deserving of recognition as we reflect on the 70th anniversary of that program.
With amazing speed, legislation establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps, orCCC, was signed into law March 31, 1933, less than a month after FDR’s inauguration. The first enrollee joined just days later, on April 7.
The program was one of the many New Deal “alphabet soup” agencies created by President Franklin Roosevelt. It was designed to offer badly needed Depression-era employment to young men, while putting them to work improving the country’s infrastructure and environment.
The CCC would hire 3 million men and last until 1942, when the nation shifted into gear for World War II. But what a legacy it left. Its accomplishments are all around us.
As director of the today’s California Conservation Corps, begun in 1976, I know the original CCC has left our young men — and women — with big shoes to fill. But you don’t have to a member of either program, old or new, to realize the benefits.
Don’t think you have any connection to the program? You do if you’ve ever visited Yosemite, camped in one of California’s state parks, hiked the Pacific Crest Trail or picnicked in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. There were more CCC camps in California than any other state and the young men here compiled an impressive list of accomplishments.
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The Corps’ efforts were massive. Across the nation, “CCC boys,” as they were fondly called, tackled soil erosion, built roads and trails and strung telephone lines. They took on historical restoration projects, such as the La Purisima Mission, where enrollees learned archeological techniques and how to make adobe bricks. And they planted trees. This last task so dominated the Corps’ work they earned the moniker of the “Tree Army.”
Their work with the U.S. Forest Service went beyond tree planting to include fire prevention and firefighting. Yellowed clippings show California enrollees cutting a fire break in the Angeles National Forest in 1934 and fighting a fire in the Cleveland National Forest in 1938. Nationwide, they fought floods as well, sandbagging against the rising waters of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and the Feather River in this state.
Our modern-day CCC has become one of the state’s premier emergency response forces, fighting fires, floods, earthquakes and in 2001, high energy costs. As part of the “Flex Your Power” effort, Governor Gray Davis directed the Corps to distribute nearly 2 million compact fluorescent light bulbs across the state, reducing both energy use and utility bills.
The original CCC enrollees earned $30 a month, with $25 sent home to their families. Our corpsmembers today are paid minimum wage. But in the old program as in the new, the value of the program exceeded monetary returns.
Less tangible benefits such as personal growth and development, academic values, career direction and the work ethic were part of the package. 1930s enrollees, like today’s corpsmembers, wanted to make something of themselves. As President Roosevelt noted in his 1933 message to Congress, “I propose to create a Civilian Conservation Corps used in simple work … more important, however, than the material gains will be the moral and spiritual value of such work.”
Whatever their path, many participants of the CCCs old and new look back on their days as the defining experience in their lives. Although different from the Depression days of the 1930s, the challenges of the new millennium are daunting in their own way. But our present-day corpsmembers can learn much from their predecessors.
The numbers of “CCC boys” grow smaller every day. If they are not your neighbors down the street, it’s likely their sons, daughters or grandchildren are. Seventy years later, their spirit and legacy remains strong, and we at the California Conservation Corps salute them.
— H. Wes Pratt has been state director of the California Conservation Corps since 1999.
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