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Sept. 21, 2021

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A century ago, a New Deal program left a lasting mark. Now, a Civilian Climate Corps could tackle joblessness, global warming

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An aerial of the Skokie Lagoons on Aug. 27, 2010. The lagoons were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of the New Deal.
An aerial of the Skokie Lagoons on Aug. 27, 2010. The lagoons were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of the New Deal. (William DeShazer/Chicago Tribune/TNS) Photo Gallery

CHICAGO — They built limestone aqueducts in the Dan Ryan Woods and dug out the Skokie Lagoons one shovel at a time. At Starved Rock State Park, they raised lodges, and along the I&M Canal, they extended dozens of bridges. They carved out trails and cleared campgrounds and planted billions of trees, and they did all of this as part of their time in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a widely popular New Deal program now being re-imagined for the 21st century.

In President Joe Biden’s January executive order aimed at addressing the climate crisis, there was a call for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps. The modern CCC would employ Americans “to conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate.”

The $2 trillion infrastructure plan introduced at the end of March included $10 billion for a corps. Multiple CCC-esque bills have also been introduced in Congress, including the Renew Conservation Corps Act by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, with a parallel bill from U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, both Illinois Democrats.

“I think Illinois is in a very special position here to help launch a program that could have a huge impact on people’s lives and on our infrastructure,” said Jerry Adelmann, president and CEO of the conservation nonprofit Openlands, which helped shape the Renew act. “We’re trying to build a big tent and get everybody under it.”

Illinois conservationists are working to create a program that they hope will find bipartisan support, like the original. For the Great Lakes region, a new corps could mean checking off a long list of items on advocates’ lists: more green space and infrastructure in cities, much-needed assistance to eroding shorelines, habitat restoration, reforestation of dwindling canopies — and new jobs.

And, advocates say, the timing seems right.

“A convergence, really, of intersecting challenges,” Adelmann said. “Climate, being one, racial justice being another, and then the economy, unemployment. These three things are coming together in powerful ways. Don’t they suggest that there should be a program?”

‘900 trees in a week’

Created in 1933 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Civilian Conservation Corps employed more than 3 million mostly young white men, offering a holistic education in conservation and requiring most of the earnings, usually about $30 a month, to be sent home to their families.

When some CCC alumni returned to an old corps site in 2000 to build a park, Ted Golema, then 82, of Lyons, recalled his earlier work as repetitious, but he was glad to have a job. “I must’ve planted 900 trees in a week,” he said. “But the most important thing was we got three meals a day and a paycheck. That was a godsend to the family.”

Participants lived at corps camps, where they received meals and medical care, and when they weren’t working, many attended classes together.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, at Camp Danville in Vermilion County’s Kickapoo State Park, workers could study topics including auto mechanics, agriculture, tree surgery, beekeeping, hospital administration and radio broadcasting.

“Roosevelt’s Tree Army” arrived at a time of staggering unemployment, but also struggling natural areas — stressed forests, eroding land, monuments in disrepair.

Today the results of their work can be seen in parks and preserves across the country.

One camp worked as far away as Mount McKinley National Park, now Denali, in Alaska. Backbone State Park, near Dundee, Iowa, was home to corps work — and has a CCC museum. New Salem, a pioneer settlement in Illinois where Abraham Lincoln once lived, was re-created by the corps about a century later.

“The legacy of the CCC here and across the country in parks and preserves and national parks is just unbelievable and extensive and beautiful,” said Benjamin Cox, executive director of Friends of the Forest Preserves. “It’s just a national treasure.”

Oscar Stanton De Priest, Chicago’s first Black alderman and later an Illinois representative, added an amendment to CCC legislation banning discrimination, but camps were usually segregated.

Decades later, archivists are still in search of rare photos and stories representing camps that employed Native Americans and Black Americans. An image from a Michigan camp, identified in 2018, marked a small step toward recognition of the overlooked CCC experience. A photo labeled “Big Jim” was found to be of James Richardson, reportedly “a quiet, strong, hardworking rural Michigan farmer who served in World War I and went on to join the CCC.”

Shaping lives

“People remembered it, their lives were shaped by it, in some cases it introduced people to new careers,” Adelmann said.

Illinois housed about 50 corps camps, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources, with larger ones hosting as many as 200 workers. Sixty million trees were planted in the state, more than 1,000 miles of trails were created, nearly 5,000 flood control structures were added and total acreage of state parks and monuments rose from 2,800 in 1930 to 16,500 a decade later.

The largest concentration of camps in the country was in the Skokie Valley, where workers excavated a few million cubic yards of soil and created about 200 acres of lagoons.

Newspapers from the camps, some more serious than others and collected as part of an archive from the Center for Research Libraries, depict days marked by hard work, but never too busy for a joke. Camp updates often made the front page, with significant column space devoted to sports and pages filled with everything from fun facts about the natural world to thinly veiled gossip.

An item in the 1934 edition of a paper from the Chicago-Lemont site announced “Officers are getting ritzy” with quarters resembling “the lobby of the Grand Hotel — well, maybe the Drake — Oh well, then, your own living room,” according to archives from the Center for Research Libraries. A column in a paper from a Mount Carroll camp, one of the few in Illinois where mostly Black workers were employed, broke down the process of soil erosion.

The Fort Farce out of Sheridan ran an obituary for its company mascot, a pet rabbit named Ida Minnie, whose services were held at her owner’s tent, according to archives from the Center for Research Libraries. Her last words: “Ida lived if I could have.”

The Civilian Conservation Corps disbanded by 1942; some participants went on to serve in WWII and others moved on to new careers. Versions of corps programs continued in some locations, and others were created, like the Youth Conservation Corps.

In later years, some of those paths appeared in Chicago Tribune obituaries: a construction worker at Glacier and Grand Teton national parks who grew up in coal mining country and went on to work as a carpenter at the Art Institute; a Bucktown native who joined the CCC and was later known as an esteemed pinball designer.

Floyd Fritz, of Geneva, joined the corps at Silver Falls State Park in Oregon, preserving natural sites and clearing paths. After lightning ignited a forest fire, he and some fellow workers were lost for days; authorities reported them dead. Fritz made it out, became a popular meat cutter, and, in retirement, ended up coming full circle and working as a manager for his son’s landscaping business.

Son Paul Fritz said he remembers hearing about that narrow escape, and the structure of his father’s days at the camp. He wishes his father was still around to ask more questions.

“He loved gardening, he loved planting trees,” Fritz said. “It was kind of nirvana for him to be outside.”

‘Bottom-up approach’

John Rogner, assistant director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, has his own personal connection to the CCC. He worked as a crew leader for the Youth Conservation Corps in the 1970s, helping to rehab some work at Mississippi Palisades State Park created by the original corps.

Like the original, Rogner said he’d like to see a new program put a lot of Illinois residents to work. Secondly, he hopes for investment in conservation infrastructure on the federal, state and local level.

But in contrast with the original program, advocates are prioritizing equity and a corps that reflects the cities where they work.

“This wouldn’t be a top-down approach,” Rogner said. “It would be largely a bottom-up approach. Getting dollars down to local communities where they know what the priorities are.”

How the various proposals end up intersecting with the White House plan is still a bit of a mystery. But, said Rogner, “I think it is not a pipe dream.”

There’s the congressional interest, the circumstances of the pandemic and the Biden administration’s focus on climate change, he said.

“You can see how the stars are somewhat aligned toward something like what we’re all talking about here,” Rogner said. “I think the challenge will be to look at all of the proposals that are out there and take the best of them.”

One challenge may be the name change in a hyperpartisan environment.

“I think the shift from a conservation corps to a climate corps is reflective of an evolution in environmental thinking,” said Anna-Lisa Castle, water policy manager for the Alliance for the Great Lakes. But, Castle said, “I think that could be unnecessarily politicized.”

Overall, the CCC may face the same challenges as other parts of the infrastructure plan, Castle said, including overcoming a narrow infrastructure definition.

“And I think we’re way past the point of needing to expand that definition to include not only roads and bridges, but also things like water service, things like green infrastructure that manages stormwater and civic infrastructure, frankly,” Castle said.

There’s reason to think that if political challenges can be overcome, the program could be popular and help address environmental injustice, Castle said. “I would love to see a climate corps put people in my neighborhood to work in my neighborhood,” Castle said, calling from the Southwest Side.

Looking ahead, officials will determine the structure and funding of the corps. The Durbin bill, which calls for $55 billion over five years to put 1 million people to work, is expected to be reintroduced soon.

“What we wanted was a piece of legislation that was extremely flexible and comprehensive, and that could play equally well out West, down South, East, North, in territories, in tribal lands, anywhere,” Adelmann said.

The growing awareness and appreciation of the natural world inspired during the pandemic may give a new corps the final push it needs to get going.

Eileen Figel, deputy general superintendent of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, helped spark the Illinois CCC plan more than a year ago and has watched advocates run with it. Now, she’s imagining the possibilities: “100 years from now people could be looking back at projects built by this new conservation corps.”

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