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The Great Depression and green jobs

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Throughout this year of "great recession," people are looking back to how this country rose to the challenges of the Great Depression. You can find stories shared by North Country elders in our Common Wealth, Common Wisdom series at Last night, PBS began airing a series of documentaries from American Experience called The 1930s. One of the programs looks back at an iconic public works policy with its roots deep in the New York State conservation movement, the civilian conservation corps. Nationwide, the CCC worked on soil conservation projects, built 3,000 state parks, and replanted forests. The men in the CCC planted three billion trees--that's estimated to be half of the trees ever planted by humans in the U.S. Lester Graham has more.

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Transcript: Lester Graham, October 26, 2009

Today we hear a lot of news calling this "the worst recession since the Great Depression." Tonight, PBS begins airing a series of documentaries from American Experience called "The 1930s." Lester Graham reports the series looks back at the Great Depression:

The documentaries in "The 1930s" series look at the stockmarket crash, the Dust Bowl, and the government's response - such as President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Robert Stone directed one of the five documentaries. He looked at the Civilian Conservation Corps - the CCC. Stone says it was the first of Roosevelt's work programs, but it also tackled the biggest environmental disasters.

"We'd spent hundreds of years just chopping down all of the forests in this country and over-using all of the farmland. The topsoil was all running into our rivers and off into the ocean. And it reached a sort of crisis point in the 1920s and early '30s."

FDR had watched the forests disappear and soil erode near his home in Hyde Park, New York. Putting men to work correcting those problems made sense to him.

"FDR was very aware of that. He started a sort of mini-Civilian Conservation Corps in New York state when he was Governor and then when he went to the White House he came up with the Civilian Conservation Corps."

FDR: "We are planning within a few days to ask the Congress for legislation to enable the government to take on public works, thus stimulating directly and indirectly the employment of many others in well-considered projects."

But this was new for government. At that time, helping the poor was something for charity, not government.

Harley Jolley is one of four CCC veterans who tell their stories in the documentary.

He says hiring unemployed young men to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps was new to politicians. But they saw it for the practical politics it was.

"And because all those politicians were well aware that they had young men in their hometown, in their home state that could vote for them next time around, 'Yeah, yeah, we'll go with you.' And very quickly it came to pass."

FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps was the first, but several work programs followed.

The CCC worked on soil conservation projects, built three-thousand state parks and replanted forests. The men in the CCC planted three-billion trees - that's estimated to be half of the trees ever planted by humans in the U.S.

This revolutionary idea got off the ground quickly. Camps were set up in every state. Men worked under military officers. The Civilian Conservation Corps members were required to send most of their pay back home.

Sometimes nearby towns welcomed the young men. CCC veteran Vincente Ximenes says, other times, people were wary of Roosevelt's army of workers.

"And there were some farmers who didn't like FDR and what he did. He was called a Communist, a Socialist, any name you could find. So, therefore, the CCC-ers also, of course, were no good as far as they were concerned."

And it wasn't just farmers.

The documentary's director, Robert Stone says, in the beginning, President Roosevelt faced a lot of opposition to his government 'green jobs' program.

"Well, there were concerns very similar to what you have today with concerns about deficit spending."

"The national debt today is 30-billion as compared to 19-billions under Hoover. And God knows Hoover was bad enough."

"So that was on the right. And on the left there were concerns about paying these people a dollar-a-day. The unions were upset about it. But the success of it was such that it really quelled most any opposition."

The Civilian Conservation Corps documentary, like the other documentaries in the 1930s American Experience series, looks at the connections between environmental damage and economic collapse in a way that still resonates today.

For The Environment Report, I'm Lester Graham.

Copyright 2009. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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