Student Conservation Association
Not Just Tree Huggers... FDR's "tree Army" Re-energizes a Nation
Something had to be done: 13,600,000 people were out of work by March of 1933. The Depression had grabbed hold of America and was tearing apart the confidence and energy of our once unshakable nation. People across the country were hungry, homeless and scared, and they wondered helplessly what could be done to improve their lives.
Random Acts of Kindness!
Enter Franklin D. Roosevelt, the newly elected Democratic President of the United States. Something had to inspire change, and he was the man to do it. With drastic new ideas and a driven efficiency, FDR revitalized the hopes and dreams of his struggling country in the first hundred days of his presidency. His program was called The New Deal, and it offered jobs in public works to millions of unemployed Americans.
One of the most popular pieces of the New Deal came out of the Emergency Conservation Work Act. It was a project called the Civilian Conservation Corps, and it ingeniously brought together two of America's most wasted resources: young, strong, unemployed men, and our neglected natural parks. The idea was to employ 500,000 men in national, state and city forests, parks and range lands. In order to apply, the men had to be between the ages of 18-24, they had to be single, and their families had to be receiving some sort of relief already. Once accepted, they were expected to move to a CCC camp where they would work 40 hours each week wherever they were needed. For their service, housing, food, clothing and tools would be provided for them. A salary of $30 a month was added to those benefits, $25 of which the men were required to send home to their families.
This program was incredibly effective on so many levels!
Primarily, it had a great effect on the men who participated. CCC provided men with the opportunity to be away from home for the first time, doing physical labor and working in the great outdoors. This growth experience enabled the men to find real pride in their accomplishments. For the men involved, the CCC eliminated the Depression-era problem of paying for food, shelter and clothing, and at the same time gave previously idle men something constructive to do with their time. Some people even attribute the low crime rate during the New Deal years to this positive involvement with the CCC.
Then there were the improvements made to our park systems around the country. Through their much needed reforestation efforts, over three billion trees were planted. Erosion was prevented on more than twenty million acres of land, and 3,470 forest fire towers were built. The CCC also jumped into fighting forest fires and providing emergency relief from floods during their years of work.
Communities around the country also benefited from the CCC. The $25/month that each man sent home stimulated local economies by helping the families have more buying power at the market. The sense of pride that having a son or brother, neighbor or friend involved in the corps raised in people also gave them hope, as they finally saw an out from the Depression the country had sunk into.
The CCC offered the perfect "win-win" situation to a country in need of a solution to its economic crisis. Unfortunately, the CCC was seen as an emergency relief organization rather than a permanent, necessary national institution. Once Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States entered the second World War, unemployment was a thing of the past. Any organization not connected directly to the war effort seemed superfluous, and so funding to the CCC was cut. By 1942 most people believed that the Corps had served its purpose, and the program was dismantled entirely.
People did not forget about the powerful impact of the CCC however, and some realized that an organization which used youth to protect and improve our environment would never lose its importance. Beginning again in the 1950's, private environmental service organizations were started with the CCC's example in mind, and continue their wonderful work to this day.
Irene and I had the excellent opportunity to see one such organization in action. The Student Conservation Association (SCA) was doing trail maintenance in Muir Woods just north of San Francisco, and the Odyssey sent us to tag along. (Camping and working in a gorgeous Redwood forest with a group of dedicated high school kids? Too cool! We Trekkers do have the best jobs in the world.)
What we'd joined in on was an "Urban Weekend." High school students from East Palo Alto had committed one weekend a month to camping with SCA and working on trail maintenance in nearby parks. The weekends are free to the students, and all camping equipment and food were provided. Sweet! Not only were the kids hooked up with the coolest tents, backpacks and cooking equipment, but they would also earn an Americorps education award to use towards college tuition when they were through. My only question is: Why haven't more students jumped at this chance!?
After spending a windy, rainy night camping with volunteers Tofa, Laite and Fehi, Irene and I were impressed. SCA believes that "few experiences build character more readily than hands-on, outdoor service to the land," and we certainly saw this vision in action. The volunteer crew learned how to make their meals on a camping stove, and clean up from it with the patented "four bucket system." They were taught to pitch their own tents, and even learned (the hard way) how to keep their hiking boots dry overnight in case of rain. Then they got down to business.
Director Rick Covington taught the new volunteers how to properly carry and use the tools necessary for trail maintenance. Now these aren't just any old rakes and shovels, these properly trained volunteers hiked off towards the trail carrying Pulaskis, saws, mallets, and even a power drill! Their assignment was to edge a narrow trail in the Muir woods with timbers. Their work would help to hold the trail in place, preventing erosion caused by foot traffic. The timbers would also make sure the trail drains better when it rains, so that nature-lovers would not be walking in water when they're hiking after a storm. Throughout the day, the hard-working volunteers took turns digging, drilling, pounding and putting the timbers into place.
When the last rebar (huge metal stake that held the timbers in place) was pounded in, it was time for the volunteers to pack up their equipment and hike back out to the van for a picnic lunch. They were exhausted and hungry, but proud of the work they had done, glad that they had done something to help the environment, and eager for next month's project to come quickly.
How about you? If you're up to the adventure, SCA offers a variety of other programs for high school and college students, as well as internships for people who want to make a career out of working with the environment. And they're not the only ones who offer these excellent service opportunities. AmeriCorps N*CCC is another organization created with the original CCC in mind. Their Web site reminds visitors that this is "Your world. Your chance to make it better." Much like the CCC, they offer "a 10-month residential national service program for young women and men between the ages of 18-24 of all social, economic, and educational backgrounds." In addition to working on environmental projects, corps members get involved with "disaster relief, education, public safety... and other unmet human needs." Both the SCA and N*CCC are exceptional ways to spend time improving the environment, and improving yourself along the way. SCA encourages volunteers to "Make Contact" and "Make a Difference." In order to do so, get in touch with them today!
The Student Conservation Association, Inc.
689 River Road, P.O. Box 550
Charlestown, NH 03603
(603) 543 1700
1201 Newe York Avenue, NW
Washington D.C. 20525
I've been constantly involved with service projects like these since I was in high school, and every experience has had a tremendously positive impact on my life. Each time I volunteer I rediscover how rewarding it is to do something that makes even a small difference to someone else. Too often, people don't take advantage of these opportunities because they feel like they don't have the time, the money, or the knowledge of where to start. To change that, I've often wondered about the possibility of a year or two of mandatory service for Americans. Why not give every American the opportunity to serve their communities right out of high school, or just after college? Their service commitment could be to the project of their choice. They could join the military, or the Peace Corps, Teach for America, or SCA, or any one of the thousands of organizations affiliated with AmeriCorps. These programs would continue to offer money towards education once service was completed. Why not? FDR had overwhelming success turning the country out of the dreariness of the Depression by trying something on a national level that had never been done before. In this age of consumerism and over-consumption, maybe we could take a break from making money for a while to give something back instead. Maybe it's time for Americans to try something radical again.
And maybe we'll earn something even more valuable than money along the way.
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Links to Other Dispatches
Daphne - Eleanor Roosevelt: An incomparable pioneer
Nick - It was a hard knock life during the Depression
Neda - Just get a job? The reality behind homelessness
Jennifer -Mary McLeod Bethune kept her eyes on the prize