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Originally published Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM


Call to rebuild parks evokes 1930s program

The economy was in shambles. Millions of Americans were out of work. Saying something drastic needed to be done, the newly elected president...

Los Angeles Times

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YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — The economy was in shambles. Millions of Americans were out of work. Saying something drastic needed to be done, the newly elected president announced a massive economic stimulus package aimed at repairing the nation's sagging infrastructure and putting people back to work.

The first "emergency agency" established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was established in 1933 and eventually put 3 million men to work in the national park system, including Mount Rainier National Park and other sites in Washington state.

By the end of the program in 1942, CCC workers had built scores of bridges, constructed flood-control projects, cut 97,000 miles of fire roads and planted 3 billion trees, prompting the nickname "Roosevelt's Tree Army."

The rustic, rock-and-timber buildings and massive lodges constructed by highly skilled artisans are now famously part of the national parks' visual style, often referred to as "parkitecture." In parks such as Yosemite — where an unusual number of projects were undertaken — the CCC's imprint remains.

Now, some in Congress and elsewhere are reaching back to embrace Roosevelt's Depression-era strategy by calling for a similar parks-restoration program to be included in President Obama's economic-stimulus plan. The House version of the bill has $2.25 billion earmarked for projects in parks. The Senate version is still under debate and is expected to be voted on Monday.

The CCC was born with the Depression in full roar and one out of four American wage earners out of work. Tens of thousands of unemployed and hungry young men took to the road rather than be a burden to their families.

The Labor Department recruited around the country and the corps became a much-desired job. The program accelerated so quickly — 300,000 men joined in three months — that at the time it was the most rapid large-scale mobilization of men the country had ever witnessed.

Each enrollee signed on for a one-year stint and was paid $30 a month — with a stipulation that $25 be sent home to support families. In addition to young men, the corps also hired what it called LEMs, or "local experienced men," to lead work in skilled trades.

Former National Park Service Director Roger Kennedy, whose forthcoming book about the CCC and the parks is called "When Art Worked," said the program was intended to heal the spirit of the workers as well as the nation.

"The CCC was a great deal more than a work program," Kennedy said. "It was an education and nutrition program. Most of the people who worked there got the first decent meals in their lives. You could see the people growing, literally, eating good food and working hard outside. You can see the transformation in the photographs from the time."

There were 600 CCC camps in various national parks during the program's 10 years. Yosemite had more than most, with 10 encampments scattered throughout the park, from the valley meadows to the high country and atop El Capitan.

Each camp housed about 225 workers, living in reinforced tents or wooden barracks. Although the park service directed the work projects, the Army operated the camps with daily reveille, chow taken in a mess hall and military discipline.


Not longer after the program began, an educational component was added to train enrollees in job-related skills and address the widespread problem of illiteracy. Some enrollees taught their compatriots to read and write.

"That's when science and history and education went into the national park system, in a serious professional way," said Kennedy, the former park service director.

The park's 6,816 CCC enrollees built walls and buildings using park trees and rocks. Those projects remain and help create Yosemite's rustic look.

"The work was hard but we loved it," wrote Leighroy Davis of Waterford, Calif. "Building rock walls on the down hillside of trail, swinging an eighteen pound rock hammer all day plus the pick and shovel was turning boys into men."

Some of the improvement projects were put to immediate use during the Depression as families from around the region took to camping all summer in the park to save money.

The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonpartisan parks-advocacy group, testified before Congress that the nation's 391 parks have billions of dollars in "shovel-ready projects," some of them remnants of the system's more than $8.7 billion maintenance backlog.

Citing the CCC as a model, the parks group is advocating for the development of a National Park Service Corps and estimates that investing stimulus funds in parks would create about 50,000 jobs. The group has studied the economic impact of parks, particularly in rural areas, finding that every dollar spent at a park generates $4 in benefit.

Construction projects could be contracted out and stimulate the local economy, said Jon Jarvis, park service director for the Pacific-West region.

"We have literally thousands of those types of projects," he said. "The infrastructure of the national park system has come in fits and starts. It was massive during CCC; now a lot of those systems are inadequate and failing."

Jarvis, whose father was in the CCC, said he would like any new park service projects to "set the standard to be as green as possible, to use that bully pulpit to educate the public about what they can do."

"There's a legitimate opportunity to make us part of the stimulus package," said Stephen Martin, superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, where 1,000 CCC enrollees labored. "We have a broad need for people to work in parks. We can offer employment programs for college students — help educate them. We require work from engineers and accountants."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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