Tree-Toting Members of Civilian Conservation Corps
Tree-Toting Members of Civilian Conservation Corps
Date: January 17, 1934
Source: Getty Images
About the Photographer: This picture was taken at the start of a tree-planting project by a New England company of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a U.S. federal employment and conservation effort established in response to the Great Depression.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a civilian work program run by the U.S. Federal Government from 1933 to 1942. By 1933, the Great Depression—a period of mass unemployment unprecedented in U.S. history—had been under way for several years, and millions of Americans were desperate for work. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945; President 1933–1945), elected partly on the strength of promises to relieve the suffering caused by the Depression, proposed the CCC during his first month in office. Congress authorized his proposal in an emergency session called by Roosevelt on March 9, 1933.
The CCC tasked small "companies" for specific projects. The company pictured here, the 117th, was based at a camp ten miles northwest of the town of Tamworth and was formed for a reforestation project, designated project S-53, which began on May 5, 1933. About thirty-five camps (each with its own company) were built in New Hampshire alone; nationwide, CCC camps were built in every state and major U.S. territory, about 4,000 in all. Separate companies were usually formed for white men, black men, and veterans; the company numbers of these groups were distinguished by a "C" (for colored) or "V" (for veteran), as for example New Hampshire company 392-V. There were several veterans CCC companies in New Hampshire but no "colored" companies, since African Americans were rare in New England at the time. Women were not hired by the CCC. In the early years of the Corps, only veterans, experienced supervisors, and men eighteen to twenty-five years old whose fathers were on welfare were eligible to join; after 1937, eligibility was extended to all men seventeen to twenty-three years old.
The CCC company shown in the picture was about to plant trees. This was one of the main tasks of the CCC, which is estimated to have planted three billion trees; the CCC was known popularly as "Roosevelt's Tree Army." Many millions of CCC-planted trees are still growing in national forests and national parks. However, CCC enrollees performed scores of different kinds of work besides tree-planting, including trail-building, canal renovation, firefighting, fire-road building, firetower construction, soil erosion control projects, stringing of telephone lines, pond-building, and even sheep rescue (during the 1936–1937 blizzards in Utah, which stranded a million sheep in deep snow). CCC enrollees wore pseudo-military uniforms and lived in standardized camps.
TREE-TOTING MEMBERS OF THE 117th COMPANY OF THE NEW ENGLAND CIVILIAN CONSERVATION CORPS FORM THE INITIALS OF THEIR ORGANIZATION IN TAMWORTH, NH, JANUARY 17, 1934.
See primary source image.
The CCC was hugely popular with the public, even among Republicans, who were usually critical of the policies of Franklin Roosevelt, a Democratic president. Three million men were gainfully employed by the CCC during its tenure; forty thousand illiterate enrollees were taught to read and write; useful public works were performed in rural and wilderness areas across the continent. Heavier construction projects, including the building of dams, airstrips, and bridges, were performed by another Roosevelt-founded organization, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA also ran a number of cultural projects in writing, theatre, and art.
A minority of the CCC's projects, including pond-building and wilderness-access projects, would today be viewed as environmentally destructive. For example, in the 1.1-million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota, docks, signs, and canoe rests built by the CCC were removed after 1964 to restore the wilderness character of the area.
By 1941, the CCC was weakening. Unemployment had greatly declined and World War II was clearly imminent. Young men would be needed for the armed services rather than tree planting. Congress finally cut off all funding for the Corps in June 1942.
Nevertheless, the CCC remained as a memory and a model, proof that an organized corps of young people could do constructive forestry and other conservation work in a politically popular program. As a result, the CCC has been emulated and revived in many forms in recent decades. In 1976, Governor Jerry Brown of California instituted the California Conservation Corps; the resemblance of its name and even its initials to the old CCC was not coincidental. Workers in the new CCC—an equal-opportunity employer, unlike the old CCC—carried out work much like those in the old: trail-building and tree-planting. The mission statement of the California Conservation Corps reads, in part, "The CCC hires young men and women to assist governmental and nongovernmental organizations in conserving, protecting, and restoring natural resources while providing Corps-members with on-the-job training and educational opportunities. The CCC … dispatches crews within hours to respond to fires, floods, earthquakes, oil spills, agricultural pest infestations, and security threats."
As of 2006, there were 109 conservation corps for people ages sixteen to twenty-five in the United States, a mixture of state and local programs united under the auspices of the National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps. Many of the young people hired by these miscellaneous corps were exconvicts or high-school dropouts seeking a second chance at life. Funding has been reduced for some of these organizations in recent years, including the California Corps. Many are funded entrepreneurially, performing fee-for-service contracts for nonprofit and government agencies. The movement seeks a renewal of federal investment, but given that funding for almost all social and environmental programs has been cut drastically under the George W. Bush Administration—which, in 2006, proposed selling off National Forest lands to private investors—this seems highly unlikely.
The National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps. 〈http://www.nascc.org/〉 (accessed February 12, 2006).
The National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni. "Roosevelt's Tree Army: A Brief History of the Civilian Conservation Corps." 〈http://www.cccalumni.org/history1.html〉 (accessed February 12, 2006).
U.S. National Park Service. John C. Paige. "The Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Park Service, 1933–1942: An Administrative History." 〈http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/ccc/〉 (accessed February 16, 2006).