The Original Tree-Huggers

By Ed Reynolds

Franklin D. Roosevelt touring the South in 1932.

The next time you’re hiking a winding trail in the Appalachians, sunning yourself on Florida beaches, or casting for bream in crystal lakes surrounded by giant oak trees in Alabama state parks, take a moment to reflect on the 3,463,766 men who planted 2.5 billion trees, restocked 972 million fish, improved 3,462 beaches, and forged 13,100 trails across America between 1933 and 1942.

Two days after his presidential inauguration, Franklin D. Roosevelt started a program called the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the most popular experiment to emerge from his New Deal. Designed to counter rampant unemployment and economic despair that had resulted from the Great Depression, the CCC was born out of Roosevelt’s Emergency Conservation Work Act. With 13,600,000 unemployed in America in 1933, fear of losing a generation of idle young men to the ravages of poverty instigated nationwide approval of the program. The program was supported by 67 percent of the Republicans, 95 percent of California, and even the Soviet Union, which praised the CCC for its “socialistic” leanings. Roosevelt’s original goal had been the enlistment of 500,000 men ages 18 to 25 to save America’s wilderness from two centuries of apathy and neglect. That number increased six-fold before the program ended during World War II.

Roosevelt did not want to establish new bureaucracies, but to utilize existing governmental departments. The departments of Interior and Agriculture were responsible for work projects, while the Labor Department was in charge of selection of CCC applicants. Logistics were an immediate problem; most of the work projects were out west despite unemployment being highest in the eastern United States. Roosevelt chose the U.S. Army to oversee training and transport of workers from induction centers to the 4,500 camps that functioned as living quarters. Camps existed in every state, including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Camps were run like Army barracks, with World War I veterans in charge of each work platoon. Workers (dubbed grunts) earned $30 a month, $25 of which was automatically sent home as part of the effort to revitalize the country. By 1939, the monthly rate jumped to $50, $42 of which was garnished. One CCC veteran laughs now at the hard times. “Our assistant leader [of the platoon] was a loan shark. He’d advance you 25 cents, but you had to pay him back 50 cents on payday,” the elderly fellow laughs. “Times were lean, though, and corners had to be cut. When you went to the dentist, you only got painkillers when they were extracting teeth. Got nothing when they drilled for fillings. It was horrible,” he smiles.

The numbers tell the story. The CCC saved 814,000 acres of grazing land, built 125,000 miles of roads, created 52,000 acres of campground and 800 state parks, constructed 32,149 wildlife shelters, and erected 1,865 drinking fountains.

There will be a reunion for CCC veterans beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday, July 28, at Desoto State Park near Fort Payne. According to park officials, fewer show up each summer for the gathering, as CCC vets are a vanishing breed. The reunion is free. It should be a wonderful way to spend a Saturday, eavesdropping on post-Depression memories of tall tales spun and friendships forged while a generation introduced America to conservation. Call 256-845-0051 for details.

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