FDR’s Triple C Threat Against Poverty and Deforestation

Katherine RivardNPF Blog
Three CCC members at Arches National Park taking a break circa 1939-1941
National Park Service

Park lovers are quick to thank President Theodore Roosevelt for his work in preserving public lands. However, it was his nephew, President Franklin D. Roosevelt whose Depression-era programs helped ensure that Teddy’s beloved parks were maintained. FDR himself had a great love of nature, valuing his time spent out of the city at Hyde Park, preserved today at Home of Franklin D Roosevelt National Historic Site. This appreciation for the outdoors and belief that it was highly beneficial for health, inspired one of the most successful of the New Deal-era programs — the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

Service Corps Today

Today, the program continues in a new form: private partners like 21st Century Conservation Corps, Groundwork USA, Conservation Legacy, and Northwest Youth Corps organize present day trail crews, engaging inclusive groups of youth and veterans. The National Park Foundation supports many crews each year, inspiring the next generation of diverse park stewards through service and helping maintain our national parks. The crews complete important projects, much like the original corps did.

The Start of a New Work Program

The crash of the stock market and economic collapse in 1929 led to a decade of impoverishment, unemployment, and despair across the country. By 1933, a year into Roosevelt’s presidency, 60 percent of the population was considered poor by government standards and over 15 million Americans were unemployed. Unemployment rates among youth was particularly high, and so to assist young, unmarried men, and in due time their families, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was born.       

The CCC was created to provide young men with on-the-job training, while providing them with a means of earning a steady income. In his history of the CCC and the parks, John Salmond describes the situation thus: “…Roosevelt, brought together two wasted resources, the young men and the land, in an attempt to save both.” In exchange for their work, each corps member was paid $30 a month and received food, shelter, and clothing.

Accomplishing Great Things

By 1935, the corps had grown to over 500,000 young men, most of whom stayed at the camps for about 6 months to one year. The camps focused on the efforts of the Department of Agriculture; therefore, more than half of the projects were completed in national, state, or private forests, either protecting or improving the parks.

CCC recruits could be seen working on projects in parks across the country, from Prince William Forest in Virginia to Arches National Park in Utah.

CCC members building a rock culvert at Arches National Park, circa 1939-1941

Crew members building a rock culvert at Arches National Park.

National Park Service

At Grand Portage National Monument, a CCC Indian Division crew helped in several capacities, including assisting with the excavation of the original NW Company stockade area.

In Georgia’s Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, CCC boys assisted with major construction projects at excavation sites, including the restoration of the 1,000-year-old Indian Earthlodge.

Meanwhile, in Texas’s Big Bend National Park, the CCC built a 7-mile all-weather access road into the basin of the Chisos Mountains, while also creating stone culverts that are still used today.

CCC work crew constructing at Big Bend National Park, mid-1930s.

CCC work crew constructing the Basin road in Green Gulch, at Big Bend National Park

National Park Service

The corps succeeded with flying colors: 63,236 buildings, 3,116 lookout towers, and 28,087 miles of trail were created by enrollees, who also erected over 405,000 signs, markers, and monuments. Additionally, they planted millions of trees and helped to fight forest fires. Their reforestation work, undoing the work of fires, natural erosion, and the lumber industry, accounts for more than half the reforestation provided in U.S. history and led to their nickname, “Roosevelt’s Forest Army.” Their work spread across 800 state parks.

Unfortunately, not all American youths were given the same opportunity. Strict hiring quotas and continued segregation meant that, despite a nondiscriminatory policy, the corps’ highest enrollment of Black participants only reached 10 percent in 1936. Despite their limited access to the program, Black and Indian CCC units served across the country.

CCC crew members in work clothes at Appomattox Court House National Historic Monument in 1941

CCC members quarrying stone at Appomattox Court House, 1941


National Park Service

By the early 1940s, employment was growing and the armed forces were beginning to expand. With the arrival of World War II, new jobs were being created, eliminating the necessity of the program. In 1942, Congress ended funding for the program. Over 2.5 million young men had served in the CCC, whose army-like procedures were an unintentional preparation for the coming call of duty for soldiers that erupted during WWII. Accustomed to life in the barracks and working hard, many former CCC members went on to join the military.

Amidst one of America’s most devastating decades, the CCC offered America’s youth a chance to learn skills and ensure the vitality of our public lands. Today, CCC alumni chapters still exist and their efforts are appreciated by the millions of visitors to the parks each year. Furthermore, your support of diverse, modern-day crews made up of both men and women enable the continuation of this tradition of trail and park maintenance in national parks. Next time you #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque, check online or speak with a park ranger to learn more about whether the CCC played a role in molding your park.

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There is a perception that we cannot tackle major challenges as a nation anymore and that’s disappointing with no shortage of work needed on our public lands and waters. S. 47, the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which included an amendment establishing the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps is a step in the right direction to engaging 100,000 youth and veterans in conservation service. Congress and the American public need to take a serious look at scaling existing conservation corps programs to address the billions in backlog maintenance while also providing new opportunities for in-demand skills development and career pathways for the 4.5 million young adults (16-24) who are neither enrolled in school nor participating in the labor market – or about one in nine members of this age group in the United States.
Were there no women in the FDR era CCC?
We know of one such special case: Mildred Blanche, who was enrolled as an assistant in the Indian Division at Winnebago NE in 1936, according to her own report. Read her story here: https://coloradoccc.org/people/mildred-blanche/ We understand there was a separate program, the National Youth Administration, that included women, but have no info on it. There is a page on WikiPedia, however: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Youth_Administration

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