Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Blog Action Day Editorial

October 15th has been proclaimed Blog Action Day, with the selected focus being the environment. Nothing could be more pertinent to the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps than the environment and environmental issues. I defy anyone to point to another era in our nation’s history when the better part of a generation was given the opportunity to live and work in nature to improve America’s forests, parks and fields. Between 1933 and 1942 the enrollees of the CCC planted between 2 and 3 billion trees, developed some 800 state parks, built over 13,000 miles of foot trails and developed 52,000 acres of public campgrounds nationwide.

The story of the CCC is so closely intertwined with the environment, one could argue that environmentalism is at least the second biggest reason anyone actually remembers the CCC of 75 years ago. (The number one reason that most folks probably cite for remembering the CCC is that they have a family member who was in the program. This is not to say these same people will actually know anything about the CCC and how it was organized, but they remember the program because of a relative.) A few revisionist historians occasionally remember the CCC as well, but only for the purpose of trying to paint it as part of a larger theoretical failure of the New Deal. Whether or not the New Deal was a failure, I cannot say. However, I can say, without fear of meaningful contradiction, that the CCC was the most successful of the New Deal's many programs.

Parks and even forests that did not exist in 1933 sprang from nothing during the era of the CCC. Then, after four years of national focus on a World War and ridding the world of fascist aggression, Americans were able to return to more pleasant pursuits and there, waiting for them, were the myriad forestry and recreational improvements that the CCC boys had created. Few stopped to remember that a lot of those CCC boys went off to fight that war and didn’t come home to enjoy the fruits of their pre-war labor. Some folks are starting to remember now.

What we think of as “environmentalism” today was probably more akin to “conservationism” in the 1930s. Men (mostly) entered parks and forestry professions because they were good with their hands, knew field craft and could probably whip most comers down at the local tavern on Saturday night. They were called “rangers” or foremen, or supervisors or Local Experienced Men – LEMs for short. Today, their rough edges seem foreign to some of us, but many of their ideals prevail. Who doesn’t marvel at the quiet of a forest? Who isn’t touched by the beauty of sunlight through the treetops? Who isn’t impressed by the careful fit of granite stones placed 70 years ago?

Under the careful tutelage of these conservationists, the boys of the CCC lived and learned, worked and played. They learned to get along, and sometimes they learned the consequences of not getting along. In the process, these boys became conservationists themselves. In some cases the boys saw parts of their country that they otherwise might never have seen, and, on the cusp of traveling overseas to fight and die for that country, they probably gained a new appreciation for their United States.

It isn’t a stretch to say that the Civilian Conservation Corp raised a first generation of conservationists/environmentalists. It also isn’t a stretch to say that most Americans have forgotten that fact.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

National CCC Reunion a Huge Success!

Kentucky’s Cumberland Falls State Park played host to the 2007 national reunion of the National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni (NACCCA) on September 27th, 28th and 29th. Approximately 110 registrants attended the event and the headcount at the closing banquet seemed to be higher still. Park Naturalist Brett Smitley estimated that of the total in attendance, 70 were former CCC enrollees. Smitley was the primary organizer of the event and his hard work paid off in the form of a satisfying gathering for these former “soil soldiers” and “tree troopers” whose numbers grow thinner with every passing day. (Estimates state that about 1,000 World War II veterans die every day. To place this figure in context, consider the fact that many CCC enrollees were 17 to 20 years of age in 1933 – nine years before the U.S. entered the war.)

Cumberland Falls hosts an annual reunion for local CCC veterans, but this national reunion is the last major gathering before next year’s 75th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Civilian Conservation Corps, a huge work relief program that put some 3 million young men to work in America’s forests, fields and parks between 1933 and 1942. NACCCA holds a national reunion every fall. Dallas played host in 2006, Rapid City hosted the reunion in 2005 and Phoenix was the host city in 2004.

During the reunion, visitors enjoyed fascinating presentations by Forest Service personnel who described archeological work done at the sites of a number of former CCC camps in Kentucky. Bill Jamerson presented his documentary film on CCC life in Michigan and entertained those gathered with his humorous folks songs describing life as it was in the CCC camps. An authentic bluegrass band, Ballard Ford, provided the entertainment for the big banquet the final night of the reunion.

The reunion setting could not have been more fitting. The CCC constructed numerous improvements in the Cumberland Falls area, including Dupont Lodge and hiking trails that visitors continue to enjoy today. On the CCC Memorial Trail, a careful hiker will find one of the concrete dynamite storage boxes the CCC enrollees placed in the side of a rock outcropping and rest on a well-placed stone bench near the end of the hike.

With former enrollees now in their 80s and 90s, the opportunity for mass gatherings of former CCC boys is quickly fading. Hopefully in the future these events will begin to attract a larger number of historians and students of forest, conservation and recreation history as well as the descendants – sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters - of CCC enrollees, who will gather yearly, not so much as a form of reunion but as a means of honoring the work of the largest peacetime mobilization this nation has ever seen.

Buffalo Crossing Camp, Eastern Arizona

Buffalo Crossing Camp, Eastern Arizona