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Originally published Thursday, December 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Trail Mix | Ron Judd

Readers join rally cry for return of CCC

Once in a while, I still get surprised. Sitting down to write last week's column about re-establishing the old Civilian Conservation Corps...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Once in a while, I still get surprised.

Sitting down to write last week's column about re-establishing the old Civilian Conservation Corps, it never occurred to me that so many readers were having the exact same idea.

But they were. And you are.

Enthusiasm is surging for this idea — to an extent I can't recall ever seeing for a government project, or any project, for that matter. There's unity, cohesion. Momentum.

The suggestion is simple: Take what surely would be a drop in the bucket of all that new economic stimulus/public infrastructure money being spent by Congress and put it to immediate use building campgrounds, renovating lodges, erecting backcountry shelters, replacing bridges — all the sorts of work performed on public lands by the original CCC, a 1930s New Deal jobs program. Don't just give money to private contractors to do the work. Create a corps with a green mission and maybe a matching green uniform.

Where would an invigorated CCC begin? Perhaps by eliminating the existing maintenance backlog in national parks and national forests. Or restoring ecosystems bruised by misuse. All the while unleashing the public's imagination on new, better ways to open wild lands to closeted Americans.

Right on, say readers, many of whom, it turns out, had parents or grandparents who worked for the old CCC — people who until the day they died were proud of the agency's living legacy.

"My father was the military director of three different CCC camps in Washington State, and I grew up on stories of his wonderful memories of those years," writes John, a teacher from Kirkland. He agrees kids have lost touch with their own natural wonders, noting that an informal poll in an environmental-science class in Bellevue revealed that most of his students had been to Europe — but not a single one to Yellowstone.

"From my perspective, I know that we cannot win the battle for the minds or taxes of voters (or your readers) unless we get them to visit wild places. Authentic experience will change their hearts."

Other readers pointed out that existing programs such as AmeriCorps, as well as state-level CCCs already in existence, could be expanded, bolstered and given new life with a solid green mission. Some even urged the making of such public service mandatory for all young people.

"We're in big trouble as a nation," writes James of Seattle. "And the concept of mandatory (the horror!) shared sacrifice could signal a return to not only rebuilding the treasures we see crumbling around us, but also the rebuilding of our national soul."

Beautifully put.

The idea already has caught hold with people in higher places. One enthusiastic response to last week's column came from U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, who grew up hiking in the Cascades and calls the government's lack of progress in keeping wild lands open to the public "heartbreaking."

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I got Inslee — who, by the way, was staying mum on rumors that he's being considered as a candidate for Secretary of the Interior in the Obama administration — on the phone on his ferry ride the other day to ask the critical question: Is something like this just a pipe dream?

"No," he says. "I think it's very realistic right now. This is one of those magic moments when you have the planets aligned for some bold action like this. I think there's a very real possibility."

The combination of a recession, a new administration willing to think big and a crying need for public works (the maintenance backlog in national parks alone exceeds $8 billion) points to the very real need for a CCC-like program, Inslee says. And there's no faster way to put people to work than sending them out into the woods.

After all, "We've seen it done before."

The National Parks Association has put forth a proposal to put 10,000 people to work just in the national parks, through AmeriCorps and grant programs. That plan, with a price tag of a mere $200 million, might provide a good template, and be a good starting place, Inslee says.

The nice thing? Here's a congressman who gets it.

Inslee, like many of us, has backpacked across stout CCC bridges and taken shelter under indestructible CCC roofs. He would like nothing better than to leave a similar wilderness footprint for the generation of his grandson, born just last week. And he's not surprised that other Americans are drawn to the romantic notion of a second-wave CCC.

"People feel a real strong connection to that history," he says. "The thought of having a rebirth of that is kind of thrilling."

Tell your friends. Lobby your congressional reps. And stay tuned.

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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