Conversation Starter: A 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps?

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The National Park Foundation has launched a website to gather ideas for the upcoming NPS centennial in 2016. Scott Breen, a student in Public & Environmental Affairs at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, posted an argument for a 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps. The post can be found at http://nextcenturyforparks.org/2013/01/828/.

Breen argues that that a modern CCC can solve two issues: 1) Unemployment rates for America’s youth and returning veterans. 2) Help put a dent in the NPS’s $11 billion maintenance backlog. He calls this 21st Century Civilian Service Corps a “win-win” for public policy.

This is a great conversation starter for my residency project on human conservation programs at Catoctin Mountain Park and shows how historical research can provide crucial context for today’s policies. Policy makers have tried to revive the CCC throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Each time, they try to remake the program to meet the changing needs of society. However, they design these programs using a model that worked in the 1930s and are motivated by popular memory. Most people do not realize that the CCC faced its own issues of rampant desertion in the later years of the program. These warm and fuzzy recollections of the CCC drove 1960s liberal policy makers to create the Job Corps program in 1964 patterned directly after the CCC. However, President Nixon closed the conservation centers closed after only a few years. Job Corps administrators were ill-prepared to deal with the changing face of poverty and racial relations in the postwar era. These centers were purposely integrated in the light of the growing civil rights movement. Administrators also recruited inner city youth to work in remote areas. Many enrollees left conservation centers because they felt that planting trees did not give them the skills for desirable office or manufacturing jobs.

I am not necessarily against a modern CCC. I am trying to bring to light the various issues faced by past programs and point out that these programs are very much rooted in contemporary ideas of poverty, race, gender, and conservation. All human conservation groups target a particular group and try to impose certain ideas and values. So my question is what groups is the NPS targeting with such a program and what are the underlying motives? I was also surprised that Breen left out the Youth Conservation Corps and other similar organizations that already do similar work. How would this program be different than the YCC or Student Conservation Association? Arguments for such programs further underscores how much the NPS relies on cheap labor in the name of social reform to complete essential park maintenance.

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