With college classes going online because of COVID-19, Joe Spofforth put his double-major in political economies and educational studies on hold to move West and find work. When the pandemic was over, he’d go back.
“You can get real into this stuff,” the 21-year-old Ohioan says, grinning at his mountain surroundings as his fellow Montana Conservation Corps crew members saw, chop and lop branches and logs away from a dirt path. Trail work.
Standing, unshowered, in the barcode shade of a tall stand of lodgepole pine in northwest Montana, he says it’s a bit scary, though.
To address those concerns and bolster the country’s preparedness for a warming world, President Biden wants to retool and relaunch one of the country’s most celebrated government programs: the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Created in 1933, in the wake of the Great Depression, the CCC put millions of young men — yes, just men — back to work. They moved from East to West, to places they’d never been before, building roads, bridges, telephone lines, campgrounds and dams — infrastructure that’s still in use and, at times, maintained by smaller conservation corps crews like Spofforth’s today. The original CCC ended in 1942, disrupted by World War II.
A part of Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for $10 billion to launch a new large-scale 21st century CCC to combat the 21st century problem. The Civilian Climate Corps, as it would be called, would employ thousands of young people to address the threat of climate change, strengthen the country’s natural defenses and maintain its ailing public lands.
“Just like we need a unified national response to COVID-19, we need a unified national response to climate change,” Biden said, while introducing his climate team.
While his is not the first effort to bring back a federal conservation corps, Biden has put the program center stage like never before. One of his first executive orders called for the creation of a modern CCC to “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs.” His interior secretary, Deb Haaland, sponsored a bill with a similar goal while representing New Mexico in Congress.
In the broader conservation community, there’s a belief that the proposal could attract needed bipartisan support, buoyed by a mix of nostalgia and need.
“I voted for Trump,” said Wendi Phelps, sitting with her family at a CCC-built campground next to a snowmelt-swollen river in conservative northwest Montana. “But if [Biden] can help get people working again, I’m all for it.”
In the shadow of FDR
It makes sense the president is so drawn to the idea and the legacy of the CCC’s Democratic father, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Biden spends a lot of time talking about, referencing and signaling to the 32nd president. A large portrait of Roosevelt hangs as the centerpiece of his Oval Office. And the current president regularly compares the current global pandemic — and all the economic and social turbulence it’s generated — as a challenge on par with the twin crises that defined the Roosevelt administration: the Great Depression and World War II.
Like Roosevelt, Biden has pitched broad, aggressive government programs and spending as the path forward. Speaking to Congress last month, Biden framed his $2 trillion infrastructure plan as “a once-in-a-generation investment in America itself — the largest jobs plan since World War II.”
Biden is the most unapologetic, big-government Democratic president in decades. It’s a stance supported by an array of circumstances: the enormity of the pandemic; former President Donald Trump’s embrace of big spending projects and deficit-funded tax cuts; and a progressive shift within the Democratic Party.
“Well, we’ve been living in the shadow of Reagan’s America. And now it’s back to the future. We’re going to start to live in the shadow of FDR,” said Jonathan Alter, a journalist and historian who wrote a book about Roosevelt’s famed first 100 days.
Given how Biden is trying to sell the concept of an aggressive government, and also government projects that directly touch and improve people’s lives, Alter said it’s clear why Biden wants to resurrect a federal job program like the CCC.
The original Civilian Conservation Corps employed roughly 3 million young men in its nine-year run. The corps fought wildfires and helped in disaster relief efforts after hurricanes. It built more than a hundred thousand miles of roads and trails, 318,000 dams and tens of thousands of bridges. It strung telephone lines across mountain passes, connecting the country.
Alter called it the most enduring of the spree of projects launched during that initial New Deal era, aside from Roosevelt’s moves to save the financial system. “They planted 3 billion trees. They saved the topsoil of the United States. Created all sorts of state parks,” he said.
Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park in the high desert of west-central Montana is one of the estimated 800 state parks built or improved by the CCC. Corps members created the first building in the Montana state park system at the caverns — a stone and cedar outhouse with a pit toilet. They built the park’s main visitor building and blasted out rock, two to four feet at a time, to create an exit in the cave system to improve tours. The cave’s most spectacular room, a massive cavern covered in rock formations evoking a coral reef, was discovered by an unknown corps member doing a little non-sanctioned exploring.
“They did all that hard work and all those things, but probably the coolest thing the CCC ever did was find this room,” said Tom Forwood, Lewis and Clark Caverns’ assistant manager, flashlight in hand.
Forwood, who led tours of the caverns for more than a decade, said that after hearing the history many of the park’s visitors would “lament the loss” of the CCC. It was across the political spectrum, he said.
“No matter what your background or what you’re into, it seems like almost everyone agrees that those projects were good and it was a good use of that type of organization,” Forwood added.
Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps, while modeled after the original CCC, would likely differ in a few significant ways.
The first: scope. Biden wants to spend $10 billion on creating his Civilian Climate Corps — a sliver of the $2 trillion proposed in his American Jobs Plan. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a far cry from the money Roosevelt poured into the original CCC and less than many progressive groups have been advocating for.
“It’s absolutely nowhere near what we need,” said Ellen Sciales, a spokeswoman for the Sunrise Movement. Sunrise estimates that Biden’s proposal would provide jobs for about 20,000 people annually. The original CCC employed roughly 300,000 per year.
The jobs, though, would be offered to a far broader group of people. For all the nostalgia the CCC brings up among progressives, there’s the reality that it was racially segregated, closed off to women and paid almost nothing. Besides a place to sleep, Corps’ members received a dollar a day and meals for their work.
Collin O’Mara, the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, has been pushing for a reboot of the CCC for a long time, but says there’s no question that things would need to be different.
“If this is simply a gap year for college kids from the suburbs, we will have absolutely failed on every level,” he said. “I think that means more inclusive hiring. It means doing work in both urban and rural environments … Black, Latino, Latina, Indigenous, Asian American organizations to help build strong partnerships.”
Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., who has drafted multiple bills to create a climate corps, said the key goal is to “reimagine,” not recreate, the initial program. “And that includes ensuring there are more folks involved from different walks of life.”
It’s still unclear how exactly the administration would deploy young Americans and at what scale. Several different proposals have been introduced by overlapping groups of Democratic lawmakers. Biden’s executive order directed the departments of the Interior and Agriculture to submit a report laying out how a program could form under existing statutes. (The report is overdue and has not yet been released.)
Administration officials and Democratic lawmakers all aim to pay corps members at least $15 an hour, plus offer health care and other benefits. They see the jobs as primarily being housed in the Interior and Agriculture departments and the program closely resembling existing initiatives like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and the Corps Network, an association of more than 130 smaller conservation corps still being operated around the country.
Most of the jobs would be short-term, with the goal of launching corps members into environmental and outdoors-focused careers.
The corps’ focus on addressing climate change would be less about trying to lower greenhouse gas emissions and more about mitigating the impact, said Ali Zaidi, a top climate adviser for the Biden administration. Communities would be strengthened against climate-fueled events like wildfires and hurricanes. Wetlands would be restored to better retain water and invasive species would be removed. Biodiversity would be protected and fires fought.
“We need to recognize that one of the risks that our infrastructure faces today comes from the unleashed impacts of a changing climate, whether it’s wildfire or floods or heatwaves,” he said.
Jono McKinney, president of the Montana Conservation Corps, has been working with other corps leaders around the country and the Biden administration to figure out the logistics of a new corps. While some progressive groups have criticized the $10 billion allocation Biden is proposing for his climate corps as being too stingy — especially considering the tens of billions of dollars federal agencies are facing in deferred maintenance backlogs — McKinney calls it a “game changer.”
There are currently 20-25,000 young people serving in Corps Network jobs around the country, he said. “Could it quadruple to 100,000 young people a year? That sounds really ambitious.”
It’s unclear if a souped-up conservation corps would attract enough interest from young people to fill its ranks.
“Moral and spiritual” draw to conservation
For Spofforth and a few other members of the Montana Conservation Corps crew working in the mountains of northwest Montana, their move to join was motivated, in part, by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spofforth was going to college in Memphis, Tenn., before the pandemic hit and his classes stopped meeting in-person. Facing a semester of online class, he decided to go find work instead. Jack O’Hanlon, 23, graduated from college last year and joined after having other opportunities fall through when the world shut down.
“A lot of people got laid off from COVID,” said Emily Brown, a 22-year-old with a North Carolina drawl.
But for Brown, and every other early twenty-something on this small crew working on a popular hiking and biking trail, the real draw was a desire to work outside and help improve an environment in decline.
“As climate change becomes more of a thing, I’ve just become more environmentally minded,” O’Hanlon said. “You want a future, right? If you’re going to have kids.”
Montana Conservation Corps crews are already doing some of the work envisioned in Biden’s climate proposal — reducing wildfire risk and building artificial dams to help retain water higher in watersheds.
That kind of work would increase exponentially if Biden’s proposal passes, McKinney said. But the bigger benefit might be in what it could do for America’s youth.
“When President Roosevelt created the CCC, he stated that more important than the material gains is the moral and spiritual value of such work,” he said.
It was a place for young people to develop, to work together and build the country’s infrastructure.
Standing beside the lapping water of Tally Lake in dirt-tattooed boots, Kaile Kimball says that her grandfather joined the CCC in the 1930s to support his family. He helped build the Appalachian Trail.
“It’s a cool feeling to be doing the same type of work,” she said.