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Not just Tree Huggers... FDR's "Tree Army" Re-energizes a Nation



Irene and I showed up at the Tennessee Valley campsite...

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.

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 determination to find something that would work right, FDR created a program called the New Deal, and it offered jobs in public works to millions of unemployed Americans.

FDR's CCC was a creative way to get young men to work and trees planted   >
One of the most popular pieces of the New Deal 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. In exchange for their service, housing, food, clothing, tools and a small salary would be provided for these men.

This program worked amazingly well on so many levels!

Kids, don't try this at home>
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.

Trail maintenence began with the CCC and continues today
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.

The CCC offered the perfect "win-win" situation to a country in need of a solution to its troubling times. Unfortunately once the United States entered the second World War, most people believed that the Corps had served its purpose, and the program was dismantled entirely.
Hey, where can we get those great yellow rain suits?
People did not forget about the powerful impact of the CCC however, and some realized that an organization that 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.

map of muir
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.)

SCA isn't all fun and games - there's work to be done!
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!?

I've been trying to tell you guys what a drill seargeant Irene can be
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. Their work would help to hold the trail in place, by preventing erosion caused by people walking on it.

At the end of the day's work, the student volunteers were exhausted and hungry, but proud of the work they had done. They felt happy that they had done something to help the environment, and eager for next month's project to come quickly.

SCA volunteers the for housekeeping of bit A

I too have 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. But in this age of over-consumption and excess shopping, 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.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches


Daphne - Eleanor Rooosevelt, An incomparable pioneer
Nick - It was a hard knock life during the Depression
Just get a job? The reality behind homelessness