AMERICAN EXPERIENCE interviewed Neil Maher, author of Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement, during the production of this film. Watch selected clips or read excerpts from his interview below.
The Great Depression actually had an environmental component to it. You had rivers that were flooding all over the country. You had the Dust Bowl that was occurring. You had deforestation. And all this was due to over-industrial development. So, there was an environmental component to the Great Depression. And if you think about the New Deal, it wasn’t just a political response to an economic crisis. It was a political response to this environmental crisis as well.
What Franklin Roosevelt was trying to do with remedial programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps or the Soil Conservation Service or theTVA was to find a long-term solution for both an economic problem, but also an environmental problem. The idea that the Corps could plant these trees and that a hundred years later, we could harvest them efficiently or go recreate in them? That’s a long-term vision that I think he had that he was very, very aware of. He was creating the Corps not just for the generation of people who were experiencing the Great Depression and trying to get through it. But, he was creating the CCC to help future generations as well. And he spoke about this all the time.
When Franklin Roosevelt took over the property from his mother [in Hyde Park, NY], he looked in the family archives and discovered that his family had won contests for growing prize-winning corn about a hundred years ago. And at that point, the Roosevelts could not grow prize-winning corn anymore on their property. And Franklin Roosevelt quickly realized that the reason was because there was soil erosion all over the property. So, he immediately began to plant trees. He actually planted about 30,000 trees a year for about a ten-year period. And actually where he went to vote, he listed his occupation as tree planter. And this was all to stop soil erosion. And I think that that experience allowed him to sort of think long term. Here, his family could not grow corn anymore. They had grown it a hundred years ago. He took action on planting trees to stop soil erosion so that maybe a hundred years later, his children could once again grow prize-winning corn.
When the Corps began, I think Franklin Roosevelt and the other administrators of the CCC really felt that it was a reforestation program. The young men would go out there and they would plant trees in areas that had been deforested. And that was sort of the primary goal. This is why the CCC has been called Roosevelt’s Tree Army.
But, in 1934, when the Dust Bowl hit, it really changed the Corps’s agenda a bit. Dust Bowl soil blew from the Great Plains to Hyde Park where Franklin Roosevelt lived. And he was very much aware that this was going on. And he immediately expanded the number of CCC camps that were in operation. And placed most of those camps in the Dust Bowl region to help farmers conserve soil.
In the later 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt and many Americans began to think that there was a third problem that was going on. And this had to do with recreation. A lot of people during the Great Depression didn’t have a lot of money. A very inexpensive way to recreate was to go to a nearby State Park or a nearby National Park and Roosevelt felt that he had to sort of help these people get out of the city and enjoy that. So, he shifted the Corps once again. And the Corps began to do much, much work in State Parks and National Parks. So, there’s sort of three phases to the CCC’s work. Began in the forest. Moved to the farms. And then ended up in the parks.
Politics and the CCC
Franklin Roosevelt was an incredibly savvy politician. He knew that the Corps could be used in ways that could help him politically. He had used conservation earlier in his career that way. So, he very much was aware of this and chose where to place many of these camps. So, he would place these camps in districts that he had friends in, allies in. He wanted to reward them with districts. And then he would withhold camps from districts of his enemies. And these camps were very, very important 'cause economically they infused about $5,000 to $7,000 per month into local economies. So, these politicians very much wanted these camps in their neighborhoods. So, he was able to sort of create this coalition politically through these camps. But then also he encouraged the working class to join the New Deal coalition as well because these men were from the working class and they were flooding into the Corps to get jobs.
There were people on the Right who opposed the Corps because they felt that it was an easy way for the Communist Party, actually, to infiltrate the working class. So, there were a couple of incidents during the 1930s where there were reports of communists actually getting into these camps and trying to convert a lot of these young men to communism. And that was immediately reported on. And Franklin Roosevelt was very concerned about that. The ironic thing is that Franklin Roosevelt, on the other end, was promoting these camps as having a very much of an Americanizing influence on these young boys. You had Irish-American boys, Polish-American young men, Italian-American young men coming into the Corps. And part of the argument about the CCC was that the work outside in nature was actually helping to Americanize these immigrants. So, you had Italian-Americans coming into the Corps and you had American men going out. And this was something that Franklin Roosevelt was very much interested in promoting, and the Corps was very much interested in publicizing as well. The Americanization through nature of this program — of these young men.
Race and the CCC
I think Franklin Roosevelt had a very interesting relationship with race. A very troubled relationship with race on one level in that I think he was more progressive when it came to race than I think sometimes his politics let on. We have to remember that Franklin Roosevelt needed the South, the Democratic South, to be supportive of the New Deal. And he could not be too progressive racially to maintain that support. So in the early years of the Great Depression,CCC camps had both African American and white enrollees in the same camp. Later on, they created segregated camps for African American enrollees and then again for white enrollees….
Now, in the early years, when we say that the Corps had both African American and white enrollees in the same camp, we shouldn’t think of that as a perfectly integrated unit. In those camps, African Americans often slept in separate barracks. They often ate at separate tables. They often had different jobs to do out in the woods. It was definitely that there was African Americans did not have the same opportunities to rise in the ranks and become camp commanders or have higher levels of responsibility in those camps. It was very much a white-led organization. But, I think when we think about Franklin Roosevelt and race, we have to remember the time in which he was functioning. And I think that he was trying. But it was a tough moment.
Some of the other conservation work that people opposed on ecological grounds were mosquito control. They drained most of the swamps in the entire eastern seaboard to control mosquitoes. And that draining of the swamps was really horrible for wildlife. Especially birds. They killed predatory animals. They felt— a lot of wolves, a lot of gofers that were not at that point seen as very important. They eradicated a lot of those. What else did they do? One of the biggest ecological wonders the Corps undertook was the planting of kudzu all over the south. This is a Japanese plant, a non-indigenous species. But, it holds to the soil very, very, very well. So, the CCC planted it all over the south. And now, today, if you go down south, you will see kudzu everywhere because it has no natural predators.
Fires are incredibly important for the natural ecosystems of forests. Many forests need small fires in the understory to allow the forest to grow in a more ecologically sound way. So, by removing all the underbrush and sort of cleaning up these forests in a way that allowed the Corps to fight these fires more effectively and basically suppressed fire in a lot of these places, the Corps was actually doing ecological damage to some of these forests. So, it’s a hard line that they were walking.
What happened was as the Corps began to expand its work beyond just planting trees and beyond soil conversation, they started to work in a lot of the National Parks. In the later 1930s, there were a lot of people who felt they were doing too much development work. They were building roads through a lot of wild areas. They were building visitor centers and shelters and picnic grounds all over National Parks and State Parks.
There were two groups that were upset with this. The first group being wilderness advocates who felt that the Corps was sort of over-civilizing a lot of these National Parks and State Parks. And this is where the Wilderness Society actually grew up in 1935, partly in opposition to Corps work down in Shenandoah region and also the Great Smokey Mountains region. The Wilderness Society felt they were building too many roads.
The other opposition stems from scientists who believe that a lot of work that the Corps was doing was not ecologically sound. So, the idea of planting single species of trees in straight rows in sort of plantations, that’s not ecologically sound. And there were people who began to argue against the Corps on ecological grounds. And that was something very, very new as was the wilderness critique also. So, the Corps democratized conservation in a way. But, also this opposition to it on wilderness grounds and ecological grounds, I think, sort of changed the way people thought about the stewardship of the land. And people began to think more about wilderness and ecology as being part of conservation.
During this period, ecology was not as well developed as a science as it is today. There were fewer people who studied it. It was very much of a science that was studied in universities. And the public didn’t really understand this. And there were very few people within the CCC who had links to this ecological science community. So, later in the 1930s, though, these scientists began to contact the Civilian Conservation Corps and complain about this — these ecological, unsound practices. And the Corps began to change its ways. They began to actually try to, you know, limit some of the work that they had done in the past: the draining of swamps or the destruction of predatory animals. They began to get an ecological awareness in the later period. And they also began to halt a lot of the road building that was destroying wilderness. The Corps became aware that was also a problem. And they canceled many of their roadbuilding projects in the late 1930s because of that wilderness opposition as well.
Overall, the Corps dramatically transformed the landscape of the United States. They altered through their labor — the young men in the Corps — an area larger than California. Thirty times the size of Connecticut was altered by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the young men in the Corps. They planted 2.3 billion trees, which is half the trees planted in U.S. history. They conserved soil erosion on thousands of farms, contour plowed thousands of farms. They built 800 new State Parks and built the infrastructure for nearly every State Park in the country. So, when Americans go out today and they go to a park or they go visit a farm or work a farm or they even walk through a national forest, they are walking on a landscape that was completely created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
“Something for Everyone”
The Corps is responsible for so many different landscapes throughout the nation. They helped complete the Appalachian Trail along the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern part of the country. They helped complete the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Coast Trail in the western part of the country along the Sierra Mountains. They created and helped build really, really important National Park structures like Timberline Lodge out in the west. And also everyday structures like in Bear Mountain State Park: comfort stations, shelters, these sorts of things, campgrounds….
Every National Park in the East was basically built from the ground up by the Corps. Shenandoah National Park, the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, all the infrastructure in those parks were built by the CCC . In the West, they improved many of the parks that were out there by building roads that connected these parks, by building visitor centers, campgrounds, shelters. Grand Canyon National Park, many of the trails in Grand Canyon National Park are there today because the CCC established several camps in the canyon. And they built trails that went down the canyon and back up the other side. They strung telephone lines across the Grand Canyon so the North rim and the South rim could communicate. They created a shelter belt along the Rocky Mountains that was trying to protect the foothills from fire. What else? The CCC built Camp David, the Presidential retreat that many presidents now use….
Outside of Denver, Colorado, the CCC built Red Rocks, this incredible amphitheater in this natural sort of rock setting that is a central performance arts space in Colorado. The Corps also built several urban parks in urban areas. They built parks for urban people. So, the Corps was affecting people in cities, people in rural areas, people in the East, people in the West, people who wanted to go out into wilderness and people who wanted to go listen to a concert at a Red Rock Amphitheatre outside of Denver, Colorado. So, the Corps was able to build something for everyone, it seems to me.
During the Progressive Era, the conservation movement was very much an elite movement based on, you know, mostly scientists or professionals who were involved in natural resource extraction. What Franklin Roosevelt did that was so interesting, I think, was that he democratized conservation. He made conservation much more popular through the Civilian Conservation Corps. He converted all these young men, 3.5 million young men. Many of them that were in the Corps all of the sudden became conservationists.
But the public at large also learned about the trees that these young men were planting, the soil that they were conserving, the water that they were conserving. And many people began to embrace conservation. They formed their own conservation groups. There were young school children who began to learn about conservation in their classrooms in their curriculum. There were women’s groups who began tree-planting programs all over the country. So, he democratized what had been a very elite movement and made it much more grassroots. And that, I think, is a really important thing that Franklin Roosevelt did.
Environmentalism involves not only the conservation of natural resources, but also the belief in ecological balance. And a belief that wild land is worth preserving. And I think that the Corps sort of promoted those ideas during the 1930s. Now, ironically, the Corps did that through opposition. There were people who were opposing the Corps for destroying wilderness. And people who were opposing the Corps on ecological grounds. But what that did was create a national debate. Is conservation about natural resources like it was during the Progressive Era? Or is conservation also about human resources? Getting people out and recreating and getting them healthy. Or is it about ecological balance? Or is conservation about preserving wild land? And that national debate forced people to rethink what conservation was in the 1930s. And I think fostered the notion that it was a bigger thing, a bigger movement, a bigger set of ideologies that today we now call environmentalism.
I believe the Corps lives on and the CCC’s legacy lives on even though the Corps program was halted in 1942. And the Corps lives on through, number one, these young men who were in the program. Many of them went into the military. But then came out and joined environmental organizations or became conservationists in their own right. Many of them worked for the Forest Service or the Soil Conservation Service or the Park Service.
Secondly, the landscapes that the Corps left behind allowed hundreds of thousands, millions of Americans to go out in these places — National Forests, State Parks and National Parks and have a new relationship with the natural world that allowed the American public to become sort of environmentalists as well. Or at least have a different relationship to nature. So, I think through the landscape the Corps left behind is also a really great legacy that is important to remember.
The story of Native peoples’ valiant resistance to expulsion from their lands and the extinction of their culture.
The story of the farmers who dreamed of prosperity and lived through ten years of drought, dust, disease and death.
John Wesley Powell's epic journey into the unknown Grand Canyon was filled with adventure as his team mapped the Colorado River for the first time.
Vivid memories of those trapped in the terrifying temblor of 1906 that killed thousands of Californians.
The contradictory history of a dam that became a statement of American power and prestige.
The coal miners' battle for dignity led to the largest armed insurrection since the American Civil War.
The epic battle waged over dinosaur fossils by rival paleontologists in the American West.
President Theodore Roosevelt was caught in the middle of the first major battle for wilderness preservation in Yosemite National Park.