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.


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.

Neil M. Maher is a Professor of History in the Federated History Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University at Newark. His first book, Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (Oxford University Press, 2009), received the Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Book Award.

Book Review: Nature’s New Deal

Nature’s New Deal Nature’s New Deal makes the connection between conservation and politics in the U.S., using the Civilian Conservation Corps as the sturdy bridge between them.

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.

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.