On-line Book
cover to 
The CCC and the NPS
Cover Page




     Brief History

    National Park Service Role

    NPS Camps


    Overall Accomplishments



The Civilian Conservation Corps and
the National Park Service, 1933-1942:

An Administrative History
Chapter One:
A Brief History of the Civilian Conservation Corps
National Park Service Arrowhead

Conrad L. Wirth (left), Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps program within the National Park Service, (1936-1942) and Civilian Conservation Corps Director Robert Fechner (right) (1933-1939).
Courtesy of the National Archives.


Celebrations throughout the country in 1983 commemorated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. In cities and national parks, speakers gave talks on the local and national history of the CCC. Former members of the CCC and interested individuals founded organizations dedicated to honoring its work and ideals. The CCC, which existed for nine years and three months, has remained one of the most popular of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs. [1]

The intellectual origins of the program predate 1933 by more than 80 years and come from another continent. In 1850 the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote that unemployed men should be organized into regiments to drain bogs and work in wilderness areas for the betterment of society. [2] Then in 1910 Harvard philosopher William James published an essay entitled "The Moral Equivalent of War," in which he wrote:

Now--and this is my idea--there were, instead of military conscription a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would follow. The military ideals of hardihood and discipline would be wrought into the growing fibre of the people; no one would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man's relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation. [3]

In 1915 conservationist George H. Maxwell proposed that young men be enrolled into a national construction corps to help in forests and plains conservation work, to fight forest fires and floods, and to reclaim swamp and desert lands. [4]

Probably the greatest single impetus for implementing these ideas was the Great Depression, when unemployment rose from a little over 3 percent of the civilian work force (in 1929) to over 25 percent (in 1933). Unemployment among the nation's youth rose even faster than general unemployment. Not only were many young people unemployed, but approximately 30 percent of those working had only part-time jobs. [5] The administration of Herbert C. Hoover responded to the worsening economic crisis by providing additional appropriations for construction of roads and trails in national parks and monuments and other public works, but these relief efforts failed to halt the economic slide of the nation. [6]

In 1932 Republican President Herbert Hoover was opposed in his reelection bid by Democratic nominee Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As a young man, Roosevelt had served as chairman of the Committee on Forests, Fish and Game in the New York state legislature. In that position he was able to spearhead the passage of the first New York legislation on supervised forestry. Roosevelt was elected governor of New York in 1928, and in 1929 he got the state legislature to pass laws to aid in county and state reforestation. In 1930 the legislature approved a plan to purchase abandoned or submarginal farm lands for reforestation. In 1931 the state government set up a temporary emergency relief administration, which hired the unemployed to work in reforestation projects clearing underbrush, fighting fires, controlling insects, constructing roads and trails, improving forest ponds and lakes, and developing recreation facilities. [7]

At the same time that Roosevelt had been establishing conservation/reforestation programs in New York, other states, including California, Washington, Virginia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Indiana, were hiring or planning for the unemployed to do conservation work. The state of California, by 1932, had established 25 camps of 200 men each to work in forests and watershed areas to fell snags, clear roadsides, construct firebreaks, and control insects. Governor Gifford Pinchot of Pennsylvania set up labor camps for young men to work on road construction and conservation work. A number of the governor's critics in the state legislature argued that this type of relief program was more costly than giving the money directly to needy recipients. Governor Pinchot reluctantly concurred that it was beyond the financial capability of the state and requested that the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (a Hoover administration loan agency established to promote fiscal stability for the country) lend funds to Pennsylvania for this relief effort. The Hoover administration loaned money to the state on the condition that the conservation funds would be self-liquidating loans to be paid back in full to the federal government. [8]

These various programs to have the unemployed do needed conservation work set the stage for Franklin D. Roosevelt's acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination for president on July 2, 1932. In the speech Roosevelt said, "Let us use common sense and business sense, and, just as one example, we know that a very hopeful and immediate means of relief, both for the unemployed and for agriculture, will come from a wide plan of the converting of many millions of acres of marginal and unused land into timber land through reforestation." [9]

At this time Roosevelt probably had no definite plans on how to implement such a program. During the presidential campaign, he corresponded with Gifford Pinchot and other interested conservationists and gave speeches in Atlanta and Boston calling for forest work for the unemployed.

In August 1932 the Society of American Foresters advocated a program for the employment of men in national and state forests and national parks to do work on erosion, watershed protection, road and trail construction, and fire protection projects. [10] Roosevelt commented on this program:

The excellent program adopted this year by the Society of American Foresters needs to be transplanted into more effective coordinated action by individual forest owners, the several States and the Nation. We need also, as I have said on other occasions, a soil survey of the entire Nation and a national land-use program. This has an important bearing on reforestation, which must be jointly a State and Federal concern, but with more effective encouragement from the Federal government than it has received in the past. [11]

After the presidential election in November, in which Roosevelt carried all but six states, he asked Secretary of Agriculture-designate Henry A. Wallace and Special Assistant to the President-elect Rexford G. Tugwell to approach Chief Forester Robert Y. Stuart with a request to develop a plan for the employment of 25,000 men in federally owned forests. While Stuart's plan was never implemented, Roosevelt used portions of it in formulating the CCC. In January 1933 the number of men that Roosevelt requested to be employed in forestry work increased from 25,000 to 250,000 men. [12]

In December 1932 the Mississippi Forestry Association submitted a work plan to the Federal Finance Corporation that called for the federal government to acquire 1 million acres of deforested lands in each of 13 southern states. The U.S. Army would recruit, equip, and administer 40,000 men to construct roads, thin and plant trees, and promote good forestry practices, and the tax money on these lands for five years would be paid to the local districts who would pay for the work. The men chosen would be between 18 and 30 years of age, and they would receive $1 a day plus subsistence. The first phase of this work was expected to last for two years and consist of constructing roads, trails, and firebreaks on these lands. After this was accomplished, good forestry practices and management would be introduced in these areas. This program would help preserve game and fish habitat, replenish depleted forest lands, and prevent flooding. Another proposal, described in American Forests (a magazine published by the American Forestry Association and widely read by conservationists), was to employ 35,000 men on a 10-year program to increase the recreational value of state forest lands and apply fire prevention techniques. [13]

In January 1933 Hoover's Secretary of Agriculture Arthur M. Hyde submitted a report to New York Senator Robert W. Wagner that proposed a month's work for 2 million men in forest areas of the country and temporary employment of another million men in national parks and on Indian reservations. Also in January Republican Senator James Couzens from Michigan introduced a bill that would authorize the Army to house, feed, and clothe unemployed youths between the ages of 17 and 24 at military posts. The measure was bitterly opposed by the military authorities and quickly dropped. It did, however, serve to warn the military that it might play a role in future programs for relief for the unemployed. [14]

NEXT> Establishment


Last Modified: Tues, Apr 4 2000 07:08:48 am PDT

National Park Service's ParkNet Home