The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a work relief program that gave millions of young men employment on environmental projects during the Great Depression. Considered by many to be one of the most successful of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the CCC planted more than three billion trees and constructed trails and shelters in more than 800 parks nationwide during its nine years of existence. The CCC helped to shape the modern national and state park systems we enjoy today.
CCC and the New Deal
President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, with an executive order on April 5, 1933. The CCC was part of his New Deal legislation, combating high unemployment during the Great Depression by putting hundreds of thousands of young men to work on environmental conservation projects.
The CCC combined FDR’s interests in conservation and universal service for youth. As governor of New York, he had run a similar program on a smaller scale.
The United States Army helped to solve an early logistical problem – transportation. Most of the unemployed men were in Eastern cities while much of the conservation work was in the West.
The Army organized the transportation of thousands of enrollees to work camps around the country. By July 1, 1933, 1,433 working camps had been established and more than 300,000 men put to work. It was the most rapid peacetime mobilization in American history.
Under the guidance of the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, CCC employees fought forest fires, planted trees, cleared and maintained access roads, re-seeded grazing lands and implemented soil-erosion controls.
Additionally, they built wildlife refuges, fish-rearing facilities, water storage basins and animal shelters. To encourage citizens to get out and enjoy America’s natural resources, FDR authorized the CCC to build bridges and campground facilities.
The CCC enrolled mostly young, unskilled and unemployed men between the ages of 18 and 25. The men came primarily from families on government assistance. Men enlisted for a minimum of six months.
Each worker received $30 in payment per month for his services in addition to room and board at a work camp. The men were required to send $22 to 25 of their monthly earnings home to support their families.
Some corpsmen received supplemental basic and vocational education while they served. In fact, it’s estimated that some 57,000 illiterate men learned to read and write in CCC camps.
Minorities in the CCC
In addition to younger men, the CCC enrolled World War I Army veterans, skilled foresters and craftsmen, and roughly 88,000 Native Americans living on Indian reservations.
Despite an amendment outlawing racial discrimination in the CCC, young African American enrollees lived and worked in separate camps. In the 1930s, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t think of segregation as racial discrimination.
Enrollment in the CCC peaked in August 1935. At the time, more than 500,000 corpsmen were spread across 2,900 camps. It’s estimated that nearly three million men – about five percent of the total United States male population – took part in the CCC over the course of the agency’s nine-year history.
Women were prohibited from joining the CCC.
Notable CCC Alumni
Several celebrities served in the CCC before they were famous.
Actors Walter Matthau and Raymond Burr labored in Montana and California, respectively. American league baseball hall-of-famer Stan Musial also worked for the CCC, as did test pilot Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound.
Veteran conservationist and author Aldo Leopold supervised CCC erosion control and forestry projects in Arizona and New Mexico.
Criticisms of the CCC
Though the CCC enjoyed overwhelming public support throughout its tenure, the agency’s programs initially drew criticism from organized labor.
Trade unions opposed the training of unskilled workers when so many union members were out of work. They also opposed Army involvement in the CCC, which they feared could lead to state control and regimentation of labor.
In order to quell union opposition, FDR appointed American labor union leader and vice president of the International Association of Machinists as the first director of the CCC.
By the time the CCC program ended at the start of World War II, Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” had planted more than 3.5 billion trees on land made barren from fires, natural erosion, intensive agriculture or lumbering. In fact, the CCC was responsible for over half the reforestation, public and private, done in the nation’s history.
CCC companies contributed to an impressive number of state and national park structures that visitors can still enjoy today. More than 700 new state parks were established through the CCC program.
Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy
In 1942, Congress discontinued funding for the CCC, diverting desperately needed resources to the effort to win World War II.
Monuments and statues dedicated to the CCC and its alumni dot parks across the country. The extensive development and expansion of park facilities and services by the CCC made possible the modern state and national park systems Americans enjoy today.
The CCC became a model for future conservation programs. More than 100 present-day corps programs operate at local, state, and national levels engaging young adults in community service and conservation activities.
The National Civilian Community Corps, part of AmeriCorps – a national service program – enrolls 18- to 24-year-old men and women for 10-month stints working for non-profit and governmental organizations, often with an environmental purpose.
The Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Park Service, 1933-1942: An Administrative History. National Park Service.
Into the Woods: The First Year of the Civilian Conservation Corps. National Archives.
CCC Brief History. Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy.