The 1930s lodge overlooking Lake James stretches in front of visitors to Pokagon State Park in Angola, Indiana. The circular drive leads to an entrance with a large stone fireplace to the right and tables with games and reading material to the left. One side of the lodge contains cozy rooms for visitors and a pool and hot tub in the basement draw in guests regardless of the outdoor temperatures. The other side is home to a bright hallway overlooking the lake, a restaurant providing home cooking, and a large great room for families to gather and play games when they can’t all fit into a single hotel room. All around the building, pictures and furniture serve as a reminder of the history of the lodge, built by young men who rescued their families from financial ruin by applying to work for the federal government as part of FDR’s New Deal.
The first time I visited the lodge with my husband Jeff and his family, the winter chill froze my nose and fingers, making me question the family excitement about rushing to the toboggan run that loomed on the hill to my right, the screams and squeals of state park visitors rushing towards me as they traveled down the frozen track on wooden sleds. At the time, I knew little to nothing about the Civilian Conservation Corps and the three million men who “planted 3.5 billion trees, established more than 700 new state parks, improved or constructed over 90,000 acres of campgrounds, helped complete the Appalachian and Pacific Coast hiking trails, assembled 40,000 bridges, built 4,500 rustic cabins and hiking shelters, and created ‘shelterbelts’ of trees to mitigate the impact of the devastating Dust Bowl across the Great Plains” (1). That would quickly change when Jeff convinced me to make camping a regular part of our lives.
After nearly twenty years of marriage to a man who has been enamored with the CCC since he was a child, I can safely say I now know a great deal more about one of the most successful aspects of the New Deal. We returned to Pokagon multiple times, spending family winter weekends at the lodge, camping in the park campgrounds, swimming in the lake, racing down the toboggan run, and hiking and biking on trails built by men who walked the same grounds years before. But this wasn’t the only CCC park we enjoyed in the years that we lived in Indiana. Ouabache and Turkey Run were both locations we gladly returned to for camping and hiking, taking advantage of the old yet sturdy 1930s structures and teaching our kids about nature and history as we explored everything the parks had to offer.
Then we moved to Texas, where we discovered a whole new world of state parks built by the CCC. Twenty-nine of Texas’s 80 state parks are CCC parks, and we’ve visited ten of them. It was the move to Texas that helped highlight to us the widespread impact of an organization that initially faced a significant amount of protest. The organization put three million young men to work, trained them in multiple skilled trades, provided them education, and prepared them for life in the military once the US joined World War II. It did all of this while paying them enough money to send home $25 a month to their families, creating a ripple effect that immediately changed the lives of millions of Americans. Long term, these CCC projects (buildings, roads, trails, campgrounds, etc.) continue to boost the economies of cities and towns located near these projects and have improved the lives of generations of Americans who still use these buildings, roads, trails, and campgrounds.
I really started thinking about the impact of the Civilian Conservation Corps when controversy erupted over the Green New Deal. There are a lot of things in the deal that the vast majority of us can agree on ideologically (clean up the environment, green energy, improvement of infrastructure, fair wages across the board to prevent companies from making many millions while getting tax breaks while their employees cost taxpayers money because they are using government programs to survive, etc.) but disagree on how that is to be achieved. The CCC wasn’t initially popular, particularly in rural areas that didn’t want to be overrun by an unproven government program. However, as those areas saw the infrastructure improvements happening around them, more towns asked for camps near them. The more I’ve learned about the successes of the CCC, the more I’ve considered the modern potential. We are 20 years into the 21st century, a century that promised innovation that has yet to be realized.
What if we brought back a modern CCC? We could offer young men and women an out from their current financial situations by offering them competitive wages, housing, technical training, and education in exchange for committing a certain amount of time to the U.S. government. So how could this new CCC be used to transform our country?
- A modern CCC could rebuild our most struggling neighborhoods, helping to rehab salvageable homes for improved safe, affordable housing, tearing down homes that cannot be repaired, and rebuilding a localized infrastructure that will improve economic and educational opportunities for our most impoverished citizens. The cleared space could be used to build community gardens with attached grocery stores to solve the problem of food deserts. The remaining open areas could be developed into multi-use parks with new trees, playground equipment, community centers, and space for adult recreational activity, including bike trails as a safe, eco-friendly alternative to public transportation. Crumbling school buildings could be brought to code, made more energy efficient, and have state-of-the-art technology upgrades to make them competitive with more affluent areas of cities. While gentrification could be a potential concern, instead of improvements that eventually push people out, there could be safeguards put into place to ensure that these improvements lift individuals in those communities up.
- Cities with large homeless populations could select the most problematic areas for the building of energy efficient tiny homes to be used as transitional housing accompanied by psychological counseling and jobs training. Locating these new tiny home communities near rehabilitated neighborhoods would give children in these communities access to stable educational services. Studies have shown that a “housing first” approach to homelessness provides a longer lasting impact than “jobs first” and using a modern CCC to design and build these homes with the additional input and assistance from those who would benefit (using a kind of Habitat for Humanity model) would ensure that everyone has a voice and a stake in community development.
- In addition to housing and city park infrastructure, a modern CCC could help in developing city-wide trails that connect all parts of our cities separate from busy roads and intersections. Very few of our nation’s cities are biker and pedestrian friendly. While there are some cities that have done fantastic work making sure that citizens have access to safe outdoor recreation, most American cities could do much better. We’ve experienced this in every city we’ve lived in. Indianapolis improved their downtown bike lanes after we moved, but where we lived on the far south side, the roads didn’t have enough of a shoulder for truly safe biking. Fort Wayne had some trails and intended to build more so that people could commute from one side of the city to the other without being on main roads, but funds were slow coming in and they were far from finished by the time we moved. Downtown Houston has some good trails and there are trails up in the Woodlands north of Houston, but the greater Houston area is not friendly to those who would prefer walking and biking to driving. We live less than two miles from our closest grocery store. We would love to bike to the grocery store to get forgotten items, but that means traveling on busy roads with drivers who don’t pay attention to pedestrians on crosswalks, let alone bicyclists on the sides of roads. Better biking and running/walking trails could also help to cut down on both traffic and pollution by making alternative transportation a very real possibility. The Rails-to-Trails project, which wants to eventually build a trail that crosses the continental US, is over 50 percent complete, with over 34,000 miles of trails already spanning the country. That project was completed with private funds, proving that people in this country are hungry for similar projects. A modern CCC could help complete similar projects and improve the health of citizens, cut down traffic and pollution, and take some of the stress off of our streets.
- Our state and national parks all need to be built up, expanded, and could also help lead the way in minimizing waste and using green energy. We witnessed a perfect example of this when our family visited Mesa Verde during our last summer vacation. The park is leading the way in green living, encouraging car pooling in the park, recycling, water conservation, solar energy, composting, and producing less waste in all park facilities. There is currently $671 million in National Parks projects that have been deferred due to lack of funds, a problem that has only been exacerbated by federal actions such as the 2018 government shutdown that prevented all national parks from getting much needed entrance fees during the busy Christmas break season. State parks are also struggling with backlogs of projects that can’t be completed due to lack of funding. An increase in state and national parks helps to take some of the pressure off of busier parks and also gets more people outside, exploring both nature and local history. A modern CCC could do what the original CCC did in the 1930s, provide Americans with more places to get away from the city and return to nature, helping them to understand the importance of ecological and historical preservation.
- Our nation’s roads, bridges, and dams are crumbling or in danger of crumbling. This is evidenced by potholes and sinkholes that cause accidents, busy bridges that collapse out of nowhere, and dams that are in danger of bursting at any moment. The cost of repairing and improving these important parts of our daily lives far outweigh the cost of not fixing them, both the financial cost and the cost to human life. The CCC used young people to build some of this infrastructure. Why can’t we enlist the same kinds of young people to do it all over again.
I know that it seems easy to make a suggestion that is really gigantic in scope. It is a drastic suggestion that would take billions of dollars and a significant amount of manpower. But we are a nation facing issues with global climate change, crumbling infrastructure, stagnant wages, ballooning student loan debt, and lack of affordable housing. Unlike the original CCC, which was frequently segregated and did not include women, a modern CCC could serve all young people looking for a path to higher education, college graduates looking for a way to pay off loan debt while getting much needed work experience, and veterans looking for a smooth transition back to civilian life, all while utilizing green tech to improve national infrastructure and fight climate change. If we can come up with a bipartisan program that would address most of these issues at the same time, I believe that is something we could all get on board with. If it worked once before, it could work again, couldn’t it?