Forging an Environmentally Just Civilian Climate Corps


FDR with CCC recruits near Camp Roosevelt, Virginia, 1933. Courtesy, National Archives.

When President Biden signed Executive Order 14008 on January 27, 2021, he called for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps based on the New Deal’s original Civilian Conservation Corps. The new program would put unemployed Americans to work conserving natural resources, much like its 1930s predecessor, but also undertake projects aimed at the most urgent environmental problem of our generation—climate change.

The announcement for the proposed Climate Corps was only one paragraph long. To ensure a popular and productive program, the Biden administration must provide more details and build on the original CCC’s successes while avoiding its pitfalls.

During its nine-year existence, from 1933 to 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps succeeded on the economic and environmental fronts. Financially, it gave jobs to more than 3 million unemployed young men who earned about $700 million (the equivalent of more than $10.5 billion today). The Corps was also successful in its conservation efforts, planting more than 2 billion trees, slowing soil erosion on 40 million acres of farmland, creating 800 new state parks and developing dozens of national parks across the country.

CCC Uniform Patch

CCC Uniform Patch
The CCC hired 2.5 million young men during its nine year existence. The camps were often racially segregated. Courtesy, National Archives.

Yet, there were also significant missteps. The original Corps excluded women and older men, assigned African American enrollees to segregated camps, and placed Native Americans into a separate program. The program stumbled environmentally as well by undertaking some ecologically destructive projects, such as draining swamps for mosquito control and introducing invasive species to conserve soil. There also were problems on the economic front. The great majority of CCC projects, such as soil work on agricultural lands and the development of parks for recreational tourism, benefited mostly white rural communities.

President Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps must acknowledge and improve on this complicated history. First and foremost, the new program must be more inclusive and accept enrollees regardless of gender, age, skin color and marital status. A new CCC must also diversify geographically, locating projects more equitably throughout the country to ensure that urban and suburban communities can benefit. Finally, a new Climate Corps must be guided by scientific experts to avoid the ecological blunders of the original program.

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CCC Fighting Fires in Willamette National Forest, Oregon. Courtesy, Oregon History Project.

An updated Climate Corps must also expand its efforts to tackle a host of environmental justice problems, many in urban neighborhoods. Working with local communities to remediate toxic waste sites, mitigate pollution and develop urban outdoor recreational spaces and community gardens are but a few examples.

Most importantly, a new CCC must focus on the most pressing environmental problem of our age: climate change. Enrollees should help develop green energy systems—from solar panel installations to wind farms—and build climate-resilient infrastructure by restoring wetlands and constructing green stormwater management systems. All of this work would train those in the program for jobs in the emerging green energy sector.

Such a new and improved CCC would be hugely popular. According to polling from Data for Progress and The Justice Collaborative Institute, 79 percent of likely voters—including 80 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans—support reviving the Corps.

Planting trees in Illinois

Planting trees in Illinois
CCC enrollees planted an estimated three billion trees from 1933 to 1942. Courtesy, Cook County Historical Society.

The history of the original CCC illustrates that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was already green.  To succeed, today’s Green New Deal initiatives—including President Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps—must also be environmentally and socially equitable.

How a New CCC Could Help Meet the Climate Crisis

Hitchhiker
CCC recruit hitchhiking back to camp, San Fernando Valley, California, 1940.
Photo Credit: Rondal Patridge. Courtesy, National Archives.

In the spring of 1933, a newly inaugurated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was facing a confluence of environmental and economic crises. The Ohio and Mississippi River basins were flooding. The Great Plains were choked with dust. More than a quarter of Americans were out of a job. 

Roosevelt’s response to these colliding forces was to create a Civilian Conservation Corps that put young men (and only men) to work preserving soil, building trails and roads, and fighting fires. “In creating this Civilian Conservation Corps, we are killing two birds with one stone,” Roosevelt said during a fireside chat in May 1933. “We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources and, second, we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress.”

The American landscape we’re living in today is, in many ways, similar to the one Roosevelt inherited. The lockdowns imposed to stem the spread of COVID-19 have sparked the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. Heavy rains flooded the Midwest this spring, and an above-average hurricane season could do the same to the East Coast soon. Most of the West is in a historic drought, and large sections of the region are on fire


CCC crew in New Mexico laying pipe to bring irrigation and drinking water to Santa Clara Pueblo lands, 1940. Courtesy, National Archives.

It’s against this backdrop that President Joe Biden has proposed revitalizing the New Deal–era program. A single sentence in Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for mobilizing an army of workers to conserve nature and combat the climate crisis: “This $10 billion investment will put a new, diverse generation of Americans to work conserving our public lands and waters, bolstering community resilience, and advancing environmental justice through a new Civilian Climate Corps, all while placing good-paying union jobs within reach for more Americans.”

Now, some legislators are trying to make that vision a reality. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, both Democrats, introduced a new bill that fills in some of the details of Biden’s ambitious idea. Dubbed the Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act, it would put 1.5 million Americans to work building climate-resilient infrastructure, reducing carbon emissions through renewable energy and conservation projects and helping communities recover from climate disasters. It would grant corps members many of the provisions on Democrats’ “social infrastructure” wish list, including a $15 an hour salary, full health care and childcare services. Corps members would also receive training and education to help them transition into union jobs. 

California Conservation Corps, 2021.

California Conservation Corps, 2021
The CCC Magalia 4 fire crew hikes to the fire line of the Dixie Fire in Plumas County, California. Courtesy, California CCC.

“It is now this generation’s turn to answer the call and meet the historic challenges of our time,” says Markey. “We don’t have time for incrementalism. We don’t have time for Herbert Hoover–type complacency. This moment demands big, bold, progressive change. This is our FDR moment.” 

Much of the environmental community has hailed the idea. Michael Brune, Sierra Club’s executive director, called it “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create good jobs for every young person who wants one and to help ensure their safety in a climate-changed world.” 

A modern Civilian Climate Corps like the one Biden, Markey, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are proposing also has wide bipartisan support among voters nationally. A recent survey of more than 1,200 likely voters found that 65 percent of respondents support the idea of a Civilian Climate Corps, with the highest support among young and rural voters. Half of those under the age of 45 said they would consider working in the corps.


Members of the Civilian Conservation Corps work to control the Malibu fire near Angeles National Forest, California, 1935. Public Domain.

There are a few notable differences between the original, Depression-era corps and the modern one proposed by Markey and AOC. The original corps only enrolled young men. Its camps were segregated. There was an entirely separate program for Native Americans, who often worked to develop their reservations for white tourists. By contrast, at least half the modern corps’ projects would take place in communities of color and rural and urban low-income communities. Half of the corps members recruited would be from those same communities. The modern corps would also respect tribal sovereignty and guarantee that at least 10 percent of its environmental justice funds went to tribal communities. 

Reforestation and tree-planting is one area in which a new CCC could learn from the old CCC, which planted more than 3 billion trees. Biden has pledged to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.


A CCC worker planting trees, 1933. Courtesy, National Archives.

Equipped with the latest findings from restoration ecology and forest management, the Climate Conservation Corps could make reforestation a pillar of its work.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is just one of the benefits. It might seem a bit rosy, but it’s possible that by connecting young Americans with each other across lines of race, class and geography, a revitalized CCC could (to steal Biden’s campaign slogan) help restore the soul of a divided nation. 

St. Marks Wildlife Refuge Improvements – St. Marks FL

What is today the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge was originally established in 1931 as the St. Marks Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, a key link in protecting the Atlantic flyway. It cover over 70,000 acres spread out between Wakulla, Jefferson, and Taylor counties in Florida and includes about 43 miles of the Gulf Coast.

In the summer of 1933, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp BF-1 was established near Newport to begin work on various improvements to the refuge under the auspices of the Bureau of Biological Survey (from 1940 the Fish & Wildlife Service). It was one of the few all African American camps in the CCC. The camp was briefly closed in 1934 due to a malaria outbreak and then relocated near Woodville, Florida.

Between 1934 and 1942, camp workers made a number of improvements at the refuge, including constructing Lighthouse Road, building earthen levees to create large water impoundments for waterfowl, and clearing more than 20 miles of firebreaks. They also constructed a diversion dam, two lookout towers, dwellings and other camp buildings, and strung dozens of miles of telephone and electrical wires on poles cut on the refuge. From the camp’s base in Woodville, the workers also assisted private owners in fire control and forestry replanting.

A Bridge into the Forest: The CCC in Ohio’s Shawnee State Forest

Shawnee State Park, In the “Little Smoky Mountains” in southern Ohio along the Ohio River

Shawnee State Park
In the “Little Smoky Mountains” in southern Ohio along the Ohio River
Photo Credit: Credit Wikipedia Commons

Shawnee State Forest, a 63,118-acre preserve bordered by the Ohio River in Southern Ohio, began with a 5,000-acre purchase in 1922. By far the largest of Ohio’s forests (making up nearly one-third of the entire Ohio State Forest system), the Shawnee was largely inaccessible to the public until, in 1933, it became the first Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) site in Ohio.

The CCC built lakes, dams, spillways, bridges, roads, hiking trails, park shelters, picnic groves, stone grills, and overlooks, opening the forest for public recreation.

More than 1,500 CCC men worked at Shawnee. Of the seven CCC camps, four were segregated. Some 220 African American enrollees from Company 1545 were stationed at Camp Roosevelt, a camp made up entirely of World War I veterans. Having fought abroad and explored the world beyond segregation, many of these men struggled to readjust to life in the U.S. In the CCC they were guaranteed work and lodging. They were paid the same wage as white CCC members–one dollar per day.

Company 1545, A segregated, all-black unit of CCC enrollees dammed the waters of Mackletree Run and Turkey Creek, creating Roosevelt Lake, 1934

Company 1545
A segregated, all-black unit of CCC enrollees dammed the waters of Mackletree Run and Turkey Creek, creating Roosevelt Lake, 1934
Photo Credit: The Ohio State University. Ohio Agricultural Research & Development Center. Wooster OH. Forestry Images Collection

The men of Company 1545 created Roosevelt Lake and built the Mackletree Road Bridge. Arguably the most significant CCC structure in the forest, the bridge was built of local honey-colored sandstone and American Chestnut timbers the men culled from the surrounding forest to flight blight.

While the Mackletree Road Bridge opened the forest for recreation and fire fighting, it also opened it to logging by state Division of Forestry. Clear cutting within Shawnee has led to degradation of the forest’s biodiversity as well as destruction of CCC works, including the Mackletree Road Bridge.

In 2017 when heavy logging equipment could no longer safely pass over the small, rustic bridge, it was replaced by one of concrete. A silver lining was the creation of a memorial to Company 1545, built from the former bridge’s weathered sandstone.

Mackletree Road Bridge, Shawnee State Park, c 1934

Mackletree Road Bridge, Shawnee State Park, c 1934
Designed by Ernest L. Gill,in the National Park Service’s “parkitecture” style, the bridge was built by a segregated, all-black unit of the CCC enrollees.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Ohio Dept of Transportation

While much of the CCC’s physical work remains intact, significant features, like the bridge, have already been lost or closed to the public and additional threats loom. Today, some of the scenic roads the CCC had designed to promote slow motoring and give visitors access to lookouts and picnic spots have been closed to the public and are restricted to logging use. Another threat was delayed last summer when local activists rose up to contest the proposed removal of the CCC’s Churn Creek Lake. Though the project to breach the spillway was delayed, elimination of the lake is likely.

New threats to the land and the CCC-crafted landscape seem to appear daily, including a proposal to open 50-mile trails through the forest for off-road vehicles. This plan is open to public comment, but seems likely to be implemented, despite impacts to the CCC-built landscape and State’s conservation mission.

Signature stone, When the men of Company 1545 completed the Mackletree Road Bridge, they inscribed it with their “signature."

Signature in stone
When the men of Company 1545 completed the Mackletree Road Bridge, they inscribed it with their “signature.”
Photo Credit: Image courtesy of Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D., from the Scioto Historical Series, private collection, Friendship, Ohio

This is not the future the CCC saw for Shawnee. “But it is never too late for the Ohio Division of Forestry to hear from folks who support preserving and protecting New Deal-era historic sites and structures,” says “Dr. Andrew Feight, a history professor at Shawnee State University. “With the interests of the logging industry primarily shaping forest management policy, state officials would benefit from hearing from the supporters of historical preservation and the being reminded of the original multiple-use and conservation vision of the CCC.”

For more information contact: Save Our Shawnee Forest

To send comments to the Ohio Division of Forestry, write to forestry.comments@dnr.state.oh.us, or ODNR Division of Forestry 2045 Morse Road, Building H-1 Columbus, Ohio 43229 Phone: (614) 265-6694

The story of Company 1545 and the work of the entire CCC in Shawnee State Forest has been well documented by Dr. Andrew Feight on his excellent website www.sciotohistorical.org.

CCC Memorial at Roosevelt Lake, Shawnee State Park

CCC Memorial at Roosevelt Lake, Shawnee State Park
When Mackletree Road Bridge was replaced in 2016, workers salvaged the hand-cut stones of the original bridge for a memorial commemorating the CCC men who built it.
Photo Credit: Image courtesy of Andrew Feight, Ph.D., from the Scioto Historical Series, private collection, Friendship, Ohio. Photographer: Andrew Freight

 

A Firebreak Runs Through It

In the wake of the most catastrophic wildfires in California’s history, Donald Trump accused state officials of shoddy forest management and recommended that the state’s dying forests should be raked. “Very important,” he said, to take care of the forest floor. Oddly enough, the New Deal’s enemies accused WPA workers of raking the forest as a synonym for boondoggling the taxpayers’ hard-earned cash.

Popular Science Magazine, 1934

Popular Science Magazine, 1934
Black line on this map shows the location of the 800-mile fire break then being built to create the man-made barrier, which will be known as Ponderosa Way.

President Franklin Roosevelt knew a good deal more about forestry than his current successor. He described himself as a grower of trees, and historian Douglas Brinkley, who called him the Forester-in-Chief, ascribed the inception of the Ponderosa Way to him. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933, and in 1934, CCC workers began to cut a north-south firebreak and access road—by some accounts up to 800 miles long—through the rugged foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada. The Ponderosa Way project employed 16,000 CCC men building bridges, laying culverts, and grading the road to create a barrier to keep wildfires in the scrubby lower elevations from reaching timber at mid-elevations. It was the CCC’s largest project in California.

CCC Enrollees Help to Control a Fire near Angeles National Forest, California

CCC enrollees work to control a fire, 1935
Angeles National Forest, California

FDR regretfully ended the CCC’s immense labor force in 1942 during the mobilization for World War II. The decline of the great California firebreak began almost immediately. In 1949, the federal government turned it over to the California Department of Forestry (CDF), which showed scant interest in maintaining it. At one point, the Ponderosa Way partially reverted back to federal jurisdiction, but no public agency much wanted the orphaned firebreak or remembered the purpose for which it had been so painstakingly built. It became discontinuous and, in many places, disappeared.

In 2007, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) attempted to get some other agency to take responsibility for it. The CDF in Butte County told the BLM that what remained of the road might be useful for public access but it did not consider it vital for fire protection. Local resident Richard Faulkner, who at the time was living in the woods outside town, told a local newspaper, “For years now there hasn’t been any maintenance on this road of any kind. I want them to fix the road and maintain the bridge. I think it is very important from a fire standpoint.”

Ponderosa Way South over the North Fork of the Calaveras River

Ponderosa Way South over the North Fork of the Calaveras River
CCC bridge built in 1935. The deck was destroyed by the Butte Fire in 2015 and never repaired.
Photo Credit: Craig Philpott Courtesy Craig Philpott

When the Camp Fire, considered the worst wildfire in California in more than a century virtually erased the town of Paradise last month, few knew that the lengthy CCC firebreak transected the town. Like so many other public works bequeathed to us by the New Deal, it is a relic of a lost civilization that we neglect at our own peril. Whether the Ponderosa Way could have saved the town or offered an evacuation route may never be known.

 
Ponderosa Way, North fork of the Mokelumne River, Amador and Calaveras Counties, California.

Ponderosa Way, North fork of the Mokelumne River, Amador and Calaveras Counties, California.
After the road deck was destroyed by fire, Ponderosa Way leading up to it was abandoned. It fell into disrepair and was deemed unsafe.
Photo Credit: Craig Philpott Courtesy Craig Philpott

Ponderosa Way Bridge crossing the North Fork of the American River Placer County, California.

Ponderosa Way Bridge crossing the North Fork of the American River Placer County, California.
Pony truss bridge built in 1935. It is still open to traffic.
Photo Credit: Craig Philpott Courtesy Craig Philpott

 

Time for a 21st Century CCC

Camp Roosevelt, Virginia
The first Ccc camp.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FDR Library

Franklin Roosevelt was, among many other things, a knowledgeable forester. He frequently described himself as a “grower of trees.”

Long before his entrance on the political scene, he spent years reforesting his Hudson River estate at Hyde Park.

As governor of New York, Roosevelt established a “tree army” of unemployed young men to restore the state’s abused forestland. “Forests, like people, must be constantly productive,” Roosevelt told the Forestry News Digest.

After his presidential inauguration in 1933, at the depths of the Great Depression, with millions unemployed, he persuaded Congress to create a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that, he said, would solve two crises by employing “wasted human resources to reclaim wasted natural resources.”

Planting trees, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Planting trees, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
The CCC planted a billion trees in parks, national forests, and on spent farmland
Photo Credit: Creative Commons Creative Commons

Scholars are still not sure whether FDR was aware of the William James 1906 speech at Stanford, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” in which the eminent psychologist and philosopher seeks to replace war with its moral equivalent. In lieu of the destructive outcome of wartime patriotism, James called for constructive civil service in the interests of the individual and the nation. That is precisely what the peacetime army of the CCC did.

During its decade-long run, the CCC employed three-and-a-half million young men to plant over three billion trees.

Racially integrated outside of the South fifteen years before President Truman desegregated the Armed Forces, the “Cs” recruited jobless, indigent, and often illiterate young men and gave them nutritious food, housing, health care, education, and hard work in some of the most rugged and beautiful places in the nation.

Fighting Fires, 1936

Fighting Fires, 1936
CCC enrollees battled wildfires and provided flood relief
Photo Credit: Idaho Department of Forestry

They fought beetle infestation and blister rust as well as forest fires, conserved soil, and were on call to help in the natural disasters—epic floods, hurricanes, and drought—that added to the hardships of the 1930s.

The CCC also left a vast legacy of superb rustic structures in national and state parks and wildlife refuges whose expansion and development during the 30s they were largely responsible for. Many CCC veterans recalled their service as among the happiest times of their lives and attributed it to success later in life.

Brass Button, Collar button from CCC uniform

Brass Button
Collar button from CCC uniform
Photo Credit: Creative Commons

After decades of tax cuts our national, state, and local jurisdictions are today incapable of dealing with the ever-growing danger of conflagrations such as those that recently devastated California, and the hurricanes from which Florida, Houston, and Puerto Rico are struggling to recover.

Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) has introduced the 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps Act, HR 2206, reviving a proven model to address chronic unemployment, heal our forests, and meet the challenges and consequences of climate change. It deserves our support.

 
Highway maintenance project, 1933.

Highway maintenance project, 1933
Lassen National Park, California
Photo Credit: NPS

The president and key CCC staff, 1933

The president and key CCC staff, 1933
Big Meadows CCC camp, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. Front row, left to right: Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, CCC Director Robert Fechner, FDR, Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FDR Library

 

CCC Totem Pole Inventory Needed

Totem poles located to a park in Hydaburg in 1941

Totem Park
Poles located to a park in Hydaburg in 1941

During the New Deal, the federal government took an unprecedented step toward preserving Native American art: It funded an effort to repair and replicate scores of totem poles in southeast Alaska.

Alaska, then a U.S. territory, was suffering from chronic unemployment during the Great Depression. Between 1938 and 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed Native Alaskans to identify, locate, and restore deteriorating totem poles. The poles were sometimes relocated to “totem parks” the CCC built to draw tourism to towns and villages.

CCC men restore a totem pole in Saxman, 1939

Totem Carvers
CCC men restore a totem pole in Saxman, 1939
Photo Credit: US Forest Service

The red cedar poles are carved and sometimes painted with family crests and images of animals. Traditionally placed along waterfronts, the totems mark family houses, clan gathering sites, and gravesites. Some “storytelling” poles serve to pass on clan knowledge and customs from generation to generation.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, “By the end of the Depression, 48 poles had been restored, 54 duplicated, and 19 new totems carved” by CCC workers. Unfortunately, no one has a conducted a definitive inventory of the CCC-era totem poles, believed to total 121.

Living New Deal researcher, Brent McKee managed to cobble together a list from various books and online sources. He has identified 63 poles, with names such as “The Spirit of Hazy Island Pole,” “The Giant Clam Pole,” “Sitting Bear Grave Marker,” and “The Lincoln Totem Pole,” carved in honor of Abraham Lincoln.

Trader Legend Pole: This replica of a pole in Sukkwan was carved during the 1938-1942 CCC project

Trader Legend Pole
This replica of a pole in Sukkwan was carved during the 1938-1942 CCC project.
Photo Credit: National Park Service

Brent says he thinks a few of the original CCC poles are probably still standing. Others have been taken down due to poor condition, or left to deteriorate on the ground and replaced with new poles, according to Native tradition. Still others are in warehouses and work sheds undergoing restoration or being replicated onto new poles. No active inventory exists, so their names, locations, and current status are largely unknown,

“But research builds on top of previous research,” says Brent. “It is my hope that the Living New Deal can map most or all of the totem poles I have found—even with imprecise geographical coordinates—and thereby (hopefully) spark more research into these historic and fascinating artworks.”

Schussing in New England, Courtesy of the CCC

A beginner ski run built by the CCC.

Polar Trail at Beartown State Forest
A beginner ski run built by the CCC.
Photo Credit: MA Dept of Conservation and Recreation

The long, cold winter months can take their toll on the psyche of residents of the Northeast. To help stave off cabin fever, winter sports that get people out and enjoying—rather than dreading—snowy days are invaluable. Surprisingly, it was not until the 1930s that snow skiing became a popular form of recreation in the mountains of the eastern U.S. Perhaps less surprising to those familiar with the New Deal, is that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) played a significant role in making the sport widely accessible New Englanders.

The CCC built the historic lodge, trails, outbuildings and a parking lot at Mount Greylock

Bascom Lodge
The CCC built the historic lodge, trails, outbuildings and a parking lot at Mount Greylock
Photo Credit: MA Dept of Conservation and Recreation

Although a small state, Massachusetts was home to an average 28 CCC camps per year in the 1930s, putting some 99,500 young men to work planting trees on the cut-over landscape; building roads to connect remote areas; and, as part of the government’s commitment to democratizing recreation, cutting ski trails across the state. The CCC also built lodges to keep visitors cozy while off the slopes. The new ski areas became popular destinations for winter fun for amateur skiers and competitive racers alike.

Some of the ski trails were used long after the CCC boys were no longer around to maintain them. One ski run in what is now the Beartown State Forest was used through the 1960s to train and compete in downhill skiing events. Sadly, many of the trails are now overgrown and the lodges are in ruins, but a few trails no longer skiable remain popular with hikers in the warmer months.

Polar Trail at Beartown State Forest

Polar Trail at Beartown State Forest
A beginner ski run built by the CCC.
Photo Credit: MA Dept of Conservation and Recreation

All is not lost to history, however. In Massachusetts, the Department of Conservation and Recreation has done a remarkable job both commemorating and preserving CCC legacies, including several rustic structures and ski trails. Some trails have been incorporated into privately run ski areas like Mount Wachusett in the center of the state, while others remain legendary destinations for backcountry skiers.

Mount Greylock, a towering mountain in the Berkshires (and, at 3,489-feet, the highest point in the state), is still home to the Thunderbolt Run. The trail was first cut by the 107th Company of the CCC in 1933 and quickly became a major destination for racers and spectators.

Plaque at a warming hut built by the CCC.

Thunderbolt Ski Trail
Plaque at a warming hut built by the CCC.
Photo Credit: MA Dept of Conservation and Recreation

In March 2017, a hundred skilled athletes will once again make the one-to-two hour hike up Mount Graylock, rest at the CCC built shelter, and then race down 2,000 feet. From competitive races to casual ski trips to summer hikers, the CCC’s promise to make New England’s rural landscape a year-round pleasure remains alive and well.

A special thanks to Dr. William Hansen of Worcester State University for tipping off the Living New Deal to the significance of winter sports and the CCC in New England via the New England Ski History site. To see historical films of the Thunderbolt Run, check out this news story from WGBY on the history of the trail, as well as a 1940s home movie of the slope being enjoyed by a wide variety of users.

Book Review: Rightful Heritage : Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America, Douglas Brinkley, pp 744

RightfulHeritageCoverTo the innumerable gifts the New Deal’s work relief agencies left to Americans must now be added a vast archipelago of parklands and entire species of plants and animals preserved by the personal initiative of President Roosevelt. One is left with that inescapable conclusion after reading Douglas Brinkley’s tome, Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America. Brinkley convincingly argues that FDR is America’s greatest environmental leader, exceeding even his admired distant cousin Teddy.

Brinkley lays a solid foundation for that claim with a six chapter section entitled “The Education of a Hudson River Conservationist, 1882-1932” in which the young FDR develops a deep interest in and love for nature on his family’s expansive riverfront estate in Hyde Park — especially for its trees and birds. In later life, whether in the Oval Office or on his extensive travels, his knowledge of the natural world astonishes those who know him, as does his determination to remediate what centuries of exploitation had done to the continent.

His creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the first weeks of his administration was Roosevelt’s remedy, he said, of simultaneously healing both damaged men and damaged land. The CCC was his own idea as well as his favorite and most popular work relief agency, and the one he wanted made permanent. The cumulative labor of his “tree army,” made possible a quantum leap forward in soil conservation and forest planting and care, but above all in the expansion of public lands forever available to and owned by all Americans.

By administrative action and executive order, FDR and his chosen associates created a continent-spanning network of national parks, forests, historic and archaeological sites, and wildlife refuges. The latter, in particular, brought animals such as the pronghorn antelope, Canada goose, trumpeter swan, whooping crane, and bighorn sheep back from the brink of extinction. The extent of those accomplishments is graphically evident in maps and lists, which Brinkley provides in 36 pages of appendices as well as a text that reveals Roosevelt’s personal commitment to conservation even while he was engaged in fighting a Great Depression and world war. He authorized Big Bend National Park, for example, on D-Day.

His accomplishments were, in hindsight, not all positive. Even at the time, fisheries biologists understood that the dams he loved to build radically disrupted riverine ecology as their reservoirs heedlessly drowned lands vital to Native Americans. Secretary of Interior and PWA czar Harold Ickes, who otherwise emerges as an even fiercer preservationist than FDR, had a pharaonic obsession with pouring concrete to kickstart the lagging construction industry and generate cheap electricity. The CCC introduced the forest-devouring plague of kudzu vine to the South in a misguided effort to check soil erosion. And Republicans likened his use of executive orders to “lock up” public lands to the tyranny of Adolf Hitler, laying the rhetorical groundwork for ranchers to “take back” public lands.

Nonetheless, few who read Rightful Heritage can deny that FDR often saw farther than his contemporaries let alone many today. On his perilous flight to Tehran to meet with Stalin and Churchill in 1943, a year and a half before his death, Roosevelt studied the deserts of the Middle East as he had the American landscape from train windows, and concluded that the region’s ruin was largely the result of millennia of deforestation and grazing. He wanted conservation to be a central concern of his United Nations after the war not only as a means of alleviating poverty and its pathologies but of leaving to future generations a more vibrant Earth which, he passionately believed, was everyone’s rightful heritage.

George Grant, Photographer of National Parks

Haircut at CCC Camp, Glacier National Park, 1933

Lake McDonald barber
Haircut at CCC Camp, Glacier National Park, 1933
Photo Credit: George A. Grant

More than eighty years after President Franklin Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), it remains one of the most memorable of the New Deal programs. Endearingly called FDR’s “Tree Army,” the CCC was key to an unprecedented era of environmental restoration and parks development that took place in the 1930s. Photographs of CCC “boys” at work and enjoying camp life played an important role in promoting both the parks and the CCC’s achievements.

The task of documenting the CCC, especially in western national parks, belonged to George Alexander Grant. A Pennsylvania native, Grant fell in love with the West’s rugged landscapes while stationed in Wyoming during World War I. Laboring in eastern factories after the war, Grant yearned to return to the West. He landed a seasonal job at Yellowstone in 1922. There he picked up a camera—perhaps for the first time—and produced images that impressed the park’s Superintendent Horace Albright. Grant reluctantly turned down a coveted ranger position at Yellowstone in hopes of working for the Park Service as a photographer. Six years of correspondence with Albright–and Albright’s appointment to Director of the National Park Service in 1929– led to Grant’s becoming the Park Service’s first staff photographer. Just months later, the nation was plunged into the Great Depression.

Death Valley, CCC Camp

Funeral Range
Death Valley, CCC Camp
Photo Credit: George A. Grant

By 1933 Grant was the chief photographer of the National Park Service and on the front lines of a golden age for national parks.  That year marked the creation of the CCC and FDR’s executive order nearly doubling the size of the parks system through the addition of national monuments, battlefields, and historic sites. Grant would spend the next seven years chronicling the CCC’s work in national parks. His finely detailed images depict men laboring on the shores of Jackson Lake in the Grand Tetons; pausing for lunch amid the grandeur of Glacier National Park; restoring historic fortifications at Vicksburg National Military Park; clearing snow from roadways in Rocky Mountain National Park; and tackling camp chores like laundry and getting a haircut.

CCC Clearing Snow in Rocky Mountain National Park, 1933

CCC Clearing Snow
Rocky Mountain National Park, 1933
Photo Credit: George A. Grant

Like the photographs of his friend and contemporary, Ansel Adams, Grant’s vivid black-and-white photographs were seen by millions of Americans. Through these images, Americans could see the results of the CCC’s labors and the physical and emotional sustenance the work provided its enrollees.  Yet, Grant has remained virtually unknown because nearly all of his published photographs were simply credited “National Park Service.”

The Park Service’s 2016 centennial year is an ideal time to remember the contributions of this unknown elder in the field of outdoor and landscape photography.

CCC Crew lunchtime at Glacier National Park

CCC Crew
Lunchtime at Glacier National Park
Photo Credit: George Alexander Grant

Ren and Helen Davis are writers and photographers based in Atlanta, Georgia. Their newest book, Landscapes for the People: George Alexander Grant, First Chief Photographer of the National Park Service (University of Georgia Press, 2015, $39.95) complements the National Park Service Centennial commemorations. The Davises have co- authored six books, including Our Mark on This Land: A Guide to the Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps in America’s Parks, published in 2011.