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Originally published Thursday, November 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Trail Mix | Ron Judd

The government should invest in resurrecting the Civilian Conservation Corps

Let's kick off the new New Deal by resurrecting one of the most successful cornerstones of the old one, the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Infrastructure.

It's the buzzword in The Other Washington these days — or at least in the other, other Washington. That would be Chicago, where President-elect Obama's Cabinet reportedly is mulling plans to pull America from the verge of an economic depression by investing in the nation's roads, utilities, transportation systems and other public services.

Good idea. But the wave of hope riding into office with Obama raises the bar for any federal dollars he releases from net pens into the surrounding economic waters. Don't Americans want their new president, rather than just inject money into public-works projects already on the books, to create a legacy of something grander?

A serious suggestion: Let's kick off the new New Deal by resurrecting one of the most successful cornerstones of the old one. Let's re-create the CCC.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, you will recall, was a work-relief program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. The idea, part of a larger package of New Deal economic reforms, was simple: Pull workers, mostly young, destitute men, together into military-style bands of crews to build useful roads, bridges, shelters, buildings and other infrastructure on public lands.

The legacy of the CCC lives on today in the woods and mountains all around us: In artful stonework in Mount Rainier and Glacier National Parks. In hundreds of rough-hewn, stately camp shelters and grand stone cook stoves in National Forest campgrounds. In the wood floors, stone walls, wooden furniture, wrought-iron fixtures and even the leather lampshades in Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood.

In my fortunate life as an outdoor explorer, I have encountered literally thousands of lingering signs of the CCC's handiwork, much of which has bravely overcome the challenge of time — and some of which has not.

I have also encountered, especially of late, distressing signs of decay in the public infrastructure that once allowed generations of Americans to better commune with nature. Roads that once took us into the backcountry have washed out, with no replacements on the horizon. Shelters have crumbled or burned. And an alarming number of campgrounds have closed.

In the past year, I've spent some time updating a guide to Washington's public campgrounds. The previous edition was published in 2002. In that short time span, camping opportunities on federal lands in the Evergreen State have plummeted, not increased.

In the raging floods of 2006, Sunshine Point Campground in Mount Rainier National Park was wiped off the face of the Earth, devoured by the Nisqually River. The Carbon River rose and once more claimed, probably for good, the Carbon River Road, closing another popular Mount Rainier camp, Ipsut Creek. No replacements are planned.

Flooding also has closed roads and trails leading to Monte Cristo, Troublesome Creek, San Juan, Buck Creek and Sulphur Creek campgrounds in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Elkhorn in the Olympic National Forest, and Dosewallips in Olympic National Park. Water systems at other campgrounds have failed. Garbage service has disappeared from others. Hundreds of public campgrounds have been turned over to private contractors.

And this is not to mention the wealth of other recreation opportunities — mostly access to hiking trailheads — now placed off-limits by the same degradation.

All of this is occurring in a time when people are likely to be looking, more than ever, to their public lands as Insanity-Free Zones during troubling times; a time when families yearn to reconnect with nature for their own peace of mind, and as an affordable vacation alternative.

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Let's be honest: We are a lazy nation that has gone physically soft and mentally adrift. We've lost touch with the land. More than ever, we need a solid reconnection — a shot of perspective.

Why not take what surely would amount to a mere drop in this sea of federal bailout money and invest specifically in access to our own wild places?

Here's a challenge to an Obama administration that prides itself in thinking big: If circumstances dictate writing checks against our own futures, let's create something that has lasting impact beyond an improved bottom line for some global contractors.

Let's leave at least one thing better for our grandkids than our grandparents left it for us. Let's unleash construction workers, cartographers, artists, musicians, painters, and carvers — dreamers of all stripes — on projects that qualify as true labors of love.

Let's rebuild the CCC and put imagination back to work. It's an idea whose time has come. Again.

Ron Judd's Trail Mix column appears here every Thursday.

To contact him: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Trail Mix | Ron Judd
Ron Judd's "Trail Mix" column focuses on the Northwest great outdoors -- with just the right amount of real life thrown in for good measure.
rjudd@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8280

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