Maher traces the competing visions that shaped American conservation—one advanced by Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service who advocated the “wise use” of natural resources, and the other by John Muir, who argued for nature’s preservation for the enjoyment and spiritual refreshment of the American public. Pinchot, whose influence spanned both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt’s presidencies, ultimately prevailed, commercializing the nation’s public lands.
Mahler finds the roots of the CCC at Springwood, the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park, New York. A self-proclaimed tree lover, FDR reforested his family lands, though his motivation was economic not ecological. FDR admired the Boy Scouts and considered outdoor labor the path to strength and character. As governor of New York, FDR added cutover private land to the state forest system and launched the Temporary Employment Relief Administration (TERA) to hire unemployed youth to plant trees. Improving the productivity of both land and people would be his call for establishing the CCC when he became president in 1933. Congress heartily agreed, appropriating funds for the CCC, though not establishing it as a permanent agency.
The program was soon wildly popular with the public. Besides reforesting public lands, the CCC was called upon when floods, wildfires, and the Dust Bowl added to the misery of the Great Depression. By 1935, the CCC employed more than a half million men in 2,900 camps. Many went on to careers in public land management.
Maher describes how FDR strategically deployed the Corps to advance his New Deal agenda—setting up camps in Republican strongholds, creating local jobs, and repairing farmers’ ruined land. In 1936 FDR was reelected in a landslide, even winning the home state of his challenger, Kansas Governor Alf Landon.
By the late 1930s, the Corps had turned to developing the nation’s parks—constructing roads and recreation facilities, draining marshes, and extirpating tens of thousands of predators in the name of more game for sport hunters. It was this zealous domestication of America’s wildlands, Mahler claims, which raised concerns about wilderness preservation and ecological wholeness that led to the modern environmental movement.
This is a lively read for those interested in American conservation and the powerful role of the CCC—and by extension, the New Deal—on Americans’ lives and landscape.
Reviewed by: Susan Ives is a communications consultant and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.