As America struggles to overcome the twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout it’s creating, Congress should take stock of the lessons learned from severe economic downturns of the past to guide what could be a prolonged and slow recovery.
Capitol Hill lawmakers have so far approved three relief packages to address the pandemic and support the economy. Still far more may need to be added to the nearly $3 trillion in taxpayer spending that’s already gone out the door before normalcy returns. Some responses are more effective than others, and policymakers should look for opportunities that provide jobs and long-term benefits to society.
One such option is the revival of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a voluntary national service program that created jobs for young, unemployed men during the Great Depression.
Over 20 million Americans reported losing their jobs in April. The 14.7% jobless rate is now higher than the 10.8% peak seen during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Still, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that due to underreporting, the actual rate is probably closer to 20%.
While we’re not yet at the all-time high of 25% unemployed during the Great Depression, the latest economic indicators are indeed dire, especially for the generation of youth just entering the job market. The unemployment rate for those 16 to 24 years old is 27.4%. And with so many older workers competing for fewer jobs, it could be years before younger Americans find meaningful employment.
Conservation Corps Provided Opportunities
The Civilian Conservation Corps gave an earlier generation of young people the opportunity to contribute to society and support themselves by working on environmental stewardship projects, including forest management and the development of state and national parks, forests, and historic sites.
The Conservation Corps became one of the most popular service programs of its era. It required a minimum of six months of service with the option to serve up to two years. In exchange, civilian participants received a small paycheck, room and board in camps set up by the U.S. Army, and the dignity of honest work.
Over its nine-year existence, the Conservation Corps enrolled roughly three million Americans. Together they planted more than three billion trees, created over 700 state parks, and cut more than 125,000 miles of trails and roads—many of which are still used by visitors today.
World War II brought an end to the Conservation Corps, but it remains a model for countless successor programs at the federal and state level. More than 100 conservation programs in all 50 states operate today as nonprofits or under units of state or local government. Since 1985, the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, also known as the Corps Network, has helped organize most of these programs into a single community of like-minded organizations representing some 25,000 young people.
AmeriCorps, a national service program with more than 80,000 members, also takes its inspiration from the original Conservation Corps. AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) division is perhaps the most direct descendant of the Conservation Corps with full-time residential teams that complete multiple projects over their 10 months of service.
I previously served in NCCC. During my time in the program, I blazed trails in state parks, removed invasive species along the Appalachian Trail, and even spent eight weeks as a wildland firefighter for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The skills I learned during my service allowed me to spend the following summer as a park ranger, and ultimately led me to work with members of Congress on conservation policy through ConservAmerica.
Conservation Corps, Public Service Programs Provide Relief and Hope
Public service programs like the Conservation Corps could provide relief and hope for tens of millions of Americans, especially those with less experience or who are temporarily out of work, as well as college students considering gap years.
For those in more stable financial situations who still want to serve, the National Park Service offers a variety of flexible options to contribute to conservation efforts through its Volunteers-in-Parks (VIP) program.
Our national parks and other public lands could undoubtedly use the attention. The U.S. Department of the Interior, which manages federal lands, has a $12 billion maintenance backlog. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, recently introduced legislation that would provide funding to address the backlog.
The Great American Outdoors Act and a renewed commitment to conservation and national service in a future relief package would provide both the necessary funding and the workforce to begin restoring our parks and historical sites.
America has known hard times before and has always emerged stronger. A national service program committed to conservation would aid the economic recovery, renew a sense of purpose for millions of unemployed Americans, and help restore the grandeur of our national treasures.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Alexandra Ogilvie is ConservAmerica’s communications manager. She holds a degree in science journalism from the University of Utah.