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Millions of Young Men Toiled in FDR’s ’Tree Army’ to Help End the Great Depression. Could it Work Again?

Their legacy in Pennsylvania is built in stone, in walls and cabins, on overlooks far above river valleys and the roads leading up to them. They were young men and teenagers with bleak prospects, staring down the nation’s worst economic crisis. But before they went off to fight fascism in Europe, the Greatest Generation grabbed axes and sledgehammers to join Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “tree army” in the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The CCC, started in 1933, was one of the most popular New Deal programs that helped lift the United States out of the Great Depression. It sent 3.5 million men between the ages of 18 and 25 into the wilds, where they earned about $30 a month building roads, flood barriers, and campgrounds. Over the course of nine years, the CCC changed the face of outdoor recreation in this country, ushering in the era of easy-access “car-camping” that exploded after World War II and continues today.

“They did a tremendous amount of work in Pennsylvania, and it’s work that’s endured,” said John Norbeck, deputy secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “They built some of the state’s most iconic parks, like Promised Land and Rickett’s Glen and French Creek. We had about 40 to 50 state parks in Pennsylvania prior to the CCC,, and today we have 121.”

Now, amid a global pandemic that has pushed unemployment numbers to 13.7 percent in Pennsylvania, parallels to the Great Depression are obvious. A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier this month is looking back to that time, too, by proposing to resurrect the corps and related work programs in rural America. The 21st Century Conservation Corps Act, introduced by Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, aims to support rural economies “by investing in job training and development, rangeland and working lands conservation programs, and the planting of billions of trees.” That bill would include $9 billion to fund training and hiring specifically for “jobs in the woods” nationwide.

“During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps created thousands of jobs while also making investments in our public lands that Americans are still benefiting from nearly a century later,” Merkley told The Inquirer in a statement.

Read entire article at Philadelphia Inquirer