When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in the midst of the Great Depression he was facing record unemployment and a host of environmental problems. Sound familiar? In response, FDR established the Civilian Conservation Corps, part his New Deal. He introduced the idea to the nation in his second fireside chat broadcast by radio across the country on May 7, 1933.
More than 3 million young men served in the CCC over its 9-year history, and collectively they are responsible for creating thousands of parks and replanting forests across the country. FDR called it his “Tree Army.”
LISTEN: Could a Resurgence of FDR’s Tree Army Be on the Horizon?
Civilian Conservation Corps in Laurel Hill State Park
John Livengood grew up in Somerset, Pennsylvania, and joined the CCC when he was 18. He worked at the camp that would become Laurel Hill State Park in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Livengood died in 2015, but his memories were recorded by park staff in 2005.
“This was all opportunities as far as we were concerned, especially me,” he said in the recording. “It was my first opportunity to make a big step in life, and every one of us Civilian Conservation Corps men were very proud of our work. We knew it was here to stay.”
As part of Roosevelt’s Tree Army, Livengood was issued work gloves and two uniforms. He worked 8 hours a day and was paid $30 a month — $25 of that was sent directly home to help his family. He spent days planting trees, cutting trails and helping to build a wooden and earthen dam that created the 4-acre Kooser Lake, beach and bathhouse.
The CCC constructed the lake primarily for fishing and swimming, along with a road that wraps around it. Swimming is no longer allowed here because of algae, but it’s still a popular picnic and fishing spot.
According to Ashley Barry, an environmental educator at the Laurel Hill State Park Complex, which encompasses Kooser, Laurel Ridge and Laurel Hill state parks, it wasn’t so picturesque when the first CCC crew arrived on June 10, 1933.
“This land was completely barren,” said Barry. “There were no trees. There was no lake, maybe a trickle of a stream running through here. But really, it was just a wasteland. Nothing, nothing like what we experienced today.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, logging and mining companies swept through this area, clear cutting most of the land. The CCC men were sent in to reforest.
“They planted trees and shrubs; they did a lot of soil erosion, work and fire control, flood control” she explained. “They really worked to restore the natural resources that had been so severely depleted.” According to Barry, the CCC planted over 3 billion trees nationwide and was responsible for more than half of the reforestation across the country.
The men also built the iconic CCC cabins, known for their simple but sturdy construction using rough-hewn timber and stones collected nearby. The cabins are still available to rent at many state parks across the country.
Calls for a New CCC for the 21st Century
During the Civilian Conservation Corps era, from 1933 to 1942, close to 200,000 Pennsylvanians served in camps across the country. Pennsylvania had 151 camps, second only to California. The value of the work completed by the CCC nationwide is estimated at $8 billion.
Now, some congressional Democrats are talking about a resurgence of the program to tackle both unemployment and environmental issues, including Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.
“I think not only is it a great idea, it’s an idea whose time has come,” he said on a Zoom call with stakeholders recently. “It’s an idea whose urgency is upon us. Maybe without the pandemic but ever more so in the aftermath of the pandemic.”
Casey is currently drafting legislation for a 21st Century CCC program that he’s planning to introduce soon and thinks there is potential for bipartisan support for it. Once the legislation is finalized, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) would provide an estimate of the total cost.
“I can hear the howls from some in Washington saying, ‘Oh my goodness, you mean you’re going to use federal dollars to hire people?’ “Casey said. “And I say, ‘Damn right. You gotta do it.’ There’s no way we can wait for some package of incentives to kickstart a full, robust recovery.”
Pa DCNR Map from its webpage on the history of the CCC in Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania, there have been other programs modeled after the CCC. The PA Outdoor Corps is one of the most successful. But what Casey is proposing is much more ambitious. His bill will include dimensions advocated for by the National Wildlife Federation, Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, and ReImagine Appalachia, a coalition of groups working on sustainable development.
In addition to conservation work, Casey’s proposal would provide CCC labor to help farmers adopt regenerative agriculture practices that improve soil and increase resilience to climate change. And unlike the original program, which was segregated, the new version would be open to people of all ages and backgrounds and workers would get a living-wage.
A New CCC for Pennsylvania?
A new report from ReImagine Appalachia, estimates that reviving the Civilian Conservation Corps could create nearly 100,000 jobs in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and absorb up to 20% of regional carbon emissions by planting trees and teaching new farming techniques.
The idea of modern-day CCC seems to have broad bipartisan support. A recent poll from Data for Progress and the Justice Collaborative Institute, both progressive advocacy groups, found that 79% of likely voters would support the creation of a CCC-like program to plant trees, fight fires and perform other conservation work.
ReImagine Appalachia includes PennFuture, a statewide environmental group, which put out its own green stimulus plan for Pennsylvania. The plan calls for a new Conservation and Economic Recovery Corps to create 15,000 new jobs in Pennsylvania, with an investment of $905 million to rebuild natural infrastructure.
Jacquelyn Bonomo, PennFuture’s president and CEO, said a reimagined CCC could put people back to work addressing any number of infrastructure and maintenance problems, like improving water quality, planting buffers along streams and removing invasive species.
Bonomo points out that visits to Pennsylvania’s parks increased by more than seven million since the pandemic started, and has taken a toll. “
This pandemic has pushed people into the outdoors in ways that we’ve never seen before,” she said. “These places have already been saddled with a billion-dollar maintenance and infrastructure backlog. It’s really important that these past investments be protected.”
According to Barry at the Laurel Hill State Park Complex, all of the extra visitors since the pandemic began have worn down the trails and damaged new growth, and they’re expecting record numbers of visitors this winter for snowshoeing and cross country skiing.
Barry already has a wishlist of projects for a new Tree Army, like repairing the Mighty Oak Pavilion, built by the CCC 87 years ago in Kooser State Park. The stone and wood pavilion, nestled back in the woods just off the Tree Army Trail, is supported by what looks like whole tree trunks. For Barry, it’s hard to believe it was made with simple tools and materials found nearby.
“For some boys who had so little, they truly did so very much for us,” she said. “We can see that in all of our state parks across Pennsylvania, the legacy that they left behind. I hope that we continue to cherish that.”
Top photo: Some CCC men at Laurel Hill in one of the rock quarries. Photo: Laurel Hill State Park Archives
This story was updated to reflect the new name of Past Sustainable Agriculture.
This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of the other stories in the series here.