Roosevelt's Tree Army

A Brief History of the Civilian Conservation Corps

 

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CCC enrollees throughout the country were credited with renewing the nation's decimated forests by planting an estimated three billion trees from 1933 to 1942.

The 1932 Presidential election was more a cry for help from a desperate people near panic as it was an election in a "landslide" vote, the nation turned to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democratic party searching for an end to the rampant unemployment and economic chaos that gripped the country. They weren't disappointed. Accepting the Presidential nomination on July 1, 1932, New York Governor Roosevelt planned a fight against soil erosion and declining timber resources, utilizing the unemployed of large urban areas.

Professional foresters and interested layman raised these aims. In what would later be called "The Hundred Days," President Roosevelt revitalized the faith of the nation with several measures, one of which was the Emergency Conservation Work (ECW) Act, more commonly known as the Civilian Conservation Corps. With this action, he brought together two wasted resources, the young men and the land, in an effort to save both.

 

The President wasted no time: He called the 73rd Congress into Emergency Session on March 9, 1933, to hear and authorize his program. He proposed to recruit thousands of unemployed young men, enroll them in a peacetime army, and send them into battle against destruction and erosion of our natural resources. Before it was over, over three million young men engaged in a massive salvage operation, the most popular experiment of the New Deal.

The strongest reaction to the proposed CCC program was from organized labor. Its leaders feared a loss of jobs that could be filled with union members. They also looked with alarm at the involvement of the Army believing it might lead to regimentation of labor.

Senate Bill 5.598 was introduced in March 27, was through both houses of Congress on the President's desk to be signed on March 31, 1933.

Roosevelt promised that, granted emergency powers, he would have 250,000 men in camps by the end of July, 1933. The speed with which the plan moved through proposal, authorization, implementation and operation was a miracle of cooperation among all branches and agencies of the federal government. It was a mobilization of men, material and transportation on a scale never before known in time of peace. From FDR's inauguration on March 4, 1933, to the induction of the first enrollee on April 7, only 37 days had elapsed.

Logistics was an immediate problem. The bulk of young unemployed youth was concentrated in the East, while most of the work projects were in the western parts of the country. The Army was the only agency with the slightest capability of merging the two and was in the program from the beginning. Although not totally unprepared, the Army nevertheless devised new plans and methods to meet the challenge. Mobilizing the nation's transportation system, it moved thousands of enrollees from induction centers to working camps. It used its own regular and reserve officers, together with regulars of the Coast Guard, Marine Corps and /Navy to temporarily command camps and companies.

 

 

 

The Army was not the only organization to evoke extraordinary efforts to meet the demands of this emergency. Agriculture and Interior were responsible for planning and organizing work to be performed in every state of the union. The Department of Labor, through its state and local relief offices, was responsible for the selection and enrollment of applicants. All four agencies performed their minor miracles in coordination with a National Director of ECW, Robert Fechner, a union vice-president, personally picked by FDR and appointed in accordance with Executive Order 6202, dated April 5, 1933.

The administration of the CCC was unprecedented. The same Executive Order that authorized the program and appointed Fechner also established an Advisory Council. Composed of representatives of the Secretaries of War, Labor, and Agriculture and Interior, the Council served for the duration. It had no book of rules. There were none. Never before had there been an agency like the CCC. It was an experiment in top-level management designed to prevent red tape from strangling the newborn agency. Fechner, and later James McEntee, would have their differences with the Council, but unquestionably, each contributed greatly to the success of the CCC.

Fechner and the Council were aware that the CCC was FDR's pet project. This attachment, in time, complicated the Director's operations. Technically, Fechner held complete authority. However, the President retained final approval of certain aspects. Decisions as to the location of camps often stagnated on the President's desk until he found time to act. Nevertheless, Fechner proved to be an honest, fairly capable, although often reluctant administrator. However, he was the man for the job, and Roosevelt never regretted the appointment.

The program had great public support. Young men flocked to enroll. A poll of Republicans supported it by 67 percent, and another 95 percent of Californians were for it. Colonel McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and an implacable hater of Roosevelt, gave the CCC his support. The Soviet Union praised the program…perhaps it saw a touch of socialism. A Chicago judge thought the CCC was largely responsible for a 55 percent reduction in crime by the young men of that day.

 

By April 1934, the Corps, now on a firm foundation, faced the beginning of its second year with near universal approval and praised of the country. This young, inexperienced $30-a-month labor battalion had met and exceeded all expectations. The impact of mandatory, monthly $25.00 allotment checks to families was felt in the economy of the cities and towns all across the nation. More than $72,000,000 in allotments was making life a little easier for the people at home. In communities close to the camps, local purchases averaging about $5,000 monthly staved off failure of many small businesses. The man on the radio could, for a change, say, "There's good news tonight."

News from the camps was welcome and good. The enrollees were working hard, eating hearty and gaining weight, while they improved millions of acres of federal and state lands, and parks. New roads were built, telephone lines strung and the first of millions of trees that would be planted had gone into the soil. Glowing reports of the accomplishments of the Corps were printed in major newspapers, even in some that bitterly opposed other phases of the New Deal. President Roosevelt, well pleased with his "baby," announced his intention to extend the Corps for at least another year.

The Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 began the best years of its life. Behind it, for the most part, were early days of drafty tents, ill-fitting uniforms and haphazard work operations. Individual congressmen and senators were quick to realize the importance of the camps to their constituencies and political futures. Soon, letters, telegrams and messages flooded the Director's office most of them demanding the building of new camps in their states. Eventually there would be camps in all states and in Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. By the end of 1935, there were over 2,650 camps in operation in all states. California had more than 150. Delaware had three. CCC enrollees were performing more than 100 kinds of work.

 

Enrollees numbering 505,782 occupied these camps. Other categories, such as officers, supervisors, educational advisors and administrators swelled the total to more than 600,000 persons.

Probably the greatest concentration of CCC personnel was in the Sixth Civilian Conservation Corps District of the First Corps Area, in the Winooski River Valley, Vermont, in December, 1933. It covered a front of about 20 miles from Middlesex to East Barre and five miles in depth from Montpelior to Wrightsville. Headquarters in Montpelior, with 28 work companies and one supply company - 26 white and three black and all veterans of the Spanish-American and World War - together with their officers, enlisted personnel and supervisors totally more than 5,300 persons, occupied four large camps.

The Emergency Conservation Work Act made no mention of either education or training. They were not officially introduced until 1937 by the Act that formally created a Civilian Conservation Corps. However, late in 1933, after a number of recommendations were made, President Roosevelt appointed Clarence S. Marsh, the first Director of Education, By 1934, a formal program had begun. It was destined to be controversial and criticized throughout its existence. Even Fechner was never too enthusiastic about the program, suspecting that at camp level it might interfere with the work program. This did not materialize, as only in the later years of the CCC was training authorized during normal working hours.

Ultimately, the success - or failure - of the educational program was determined by the initiative and qualifications of the Educational Advisor stationed in each camp. The attitude and cooperation of the camp commander was also important. These programs varied considerably from camp to camp, both in efficiency and results. However, throughout the Corps, more than 40,000 illiterates were taught to read and write. Since most of this training was on the enrollee's own time, undoubtedly each gained that for which he worked the hardest, be it high school diploma, learning to type, or wood carving.

 

Although relief of unemployed youth had been the original objective of the ECW, two important modifications became necessary early in 1933. The first extended enlistment coverage to about 14,000 American Indians whose economic straits were deplorable and had been largely ignored. Before the CCC was terminated, more than 80,000 Native Americans were paid to help reclaim the land that had once been their exclusive domain.

The second modification authorized the enrollment of about 25,000 older local men (called LEMS) who, because of their experience or special skills, were vital to train and protect the unskilled enrollee in his transition from city greenhorn to expert handler of axe and shovel. Demands of nearby communities that their own unemployed be eligible for hire were also satisfied. Some complaints of "political patronage" emerged in this endeavor, but no serious scandals ever developed.

The appearance of a second Bonus Army in Washington in May, 1933, brought about another unplanned modification when the President issued Executive Order 6129, dated May 11, 1933, authorizing the immediate enrollment of about 25,000 veterans of the Spanish American War and WW1, with no age or marital restrictions. These men were first housed in separate camps and performed duties in conservation suited to their age and physical condition. While not exactly what the veterans had in mind when they marched on Washington, it was an offer that most accepted. A total of nearly 250,000 got belated opportunity to rebuild lives disrupted by earlier serve to their country.

The years 1935-36 witnessed not only a peak in the size and popularity of the Corps but revealed the first major attempt to change a system which had proved to be workable and successful since early in 1933. However, before this challenge developed, Congress authorized funded and extended the existence of the CCC until March 1935, with a new ceiling of 600,000 enrollees. This action left little doubt that the "grass roots" and their representatives were more than satisfied with the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

At first, it appeared there would be no problems in reaching the 600,000-man ceiling. However, a new name had appeared among Roosevelt's advisors. Harry Hopkins established new and uncoordinated ground rules for the selection of enrollees. His procedure, based on relief rolls, effectively ruined the quota systems in use by all the states. Fechner protested violently, and the hassle that developed slowed down the recruiting efforts and generated so much confusion that by September 1935, there were only about 500,000 men located in 2,600 camps. Never again, during the remainder of the life of the Corps, were there as many men in as many camps.

 

While Fechner was still struggling with the changes required by the failure to meet the 600,000-strength figure, he was struck by another change in strategy that spelled disaster to him. Roosevelt quietly informed him to expect a drastic reduction in the number of camps and enrollees in an effort to balance the federal budget in an election year. Roosevelt, a master politician, was aware that a major cut in government spending would be an important selling point in this campaign for re-election. However, in 1936 there were other factors involved that he either ignored or had underestimated. Election year or not, Roosevelt's proposed budget reform invited trouble.

As soon as the proposed reduction was announced the floodgates burst, and Congress was besieged with protests. The Corps was at the height of its popularity. No one wanted camps closed, especially those in his area. Republicans and Democrats alike frantically sought a reversal of Roosevelt's policy. The President was adamant. The plan would begin, he insisted, in January, 1936. By June, he wished approximately 300,000 men in about 1,400 camps. Coincidentally, about this time a few camps previously scheduled to close, did so. This action brought another deluge of mail. Congress, sparked by House Democrats, was in open revolt and was determined to take joint action to maintain the Corps at its current strength. Roosevelt and his advisors finally recognized the threat of such an action as a threat to their whole legislative program and wisely called a retreat. He advised Fechner that the proposal had been dropped and that all existing camps and personnel would remain in being. His own party had refused to let him economize in an election year at the expense of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Despite a few problems, the year 1936 was a success for the CCC. The projects completed had reached high levels, all faithfully recorded and reported to FDR in Fechner's yearly report. It was a proud record, added to each year, so that in 1942, there was hardly a state that couldn't boast of permanent projects left as markers in the passage of "Roosevelt's Tree Army."

 

Some of the specific accomplishments of the Corps during its existence included 3,470 fire towers erected, 97,000 miles of fire roads built, 4,235,000 man-days devoted to fighting fires, and more than three billion trees planted. Five hundred camps were under the control of the Soil Conservation Service, performing erosion control. Erosion was ultimately arrested on more than twenty million acres. The CCC made outstanding contributions in the development of recreational facilities in national, state, county and metropolitan parks.

There were 7,153,000 enrollee man-days expended on other related conservation activities. These included protection of range for the Grazing Service, protecting the natural habitats of wildlife, stream improvement, restocking of fish and building small dams for water conservation. Eighty-three camps in 15 western states were assigned 45 projects of this nature.

Drainage was another important phase of land conservation and management. There were 84,400,000 acres of good agricultural land dependent on man-made drainage systems, an area equal to the combined states of Ohio, Indiana and Iowa. Forty-six camps were assigned to this work under the direction of the U.S. Bureau of Agriculture Engineering. Indian enrollees did much of this work.

Residents of southern Indiana will never forget the emergency work of the CCC during the flooding of the Ohio River in 1937. The combined strength of camps in the area saved countless lives and much property in danger of being swept away. They contributed 1,240,000 man-days of emergency work in floods of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. Other disasters in which the CCC participated were the floods of Vermont and New York in 1937 and the New England hurricane of 1938. During blizzards of 1936-37 in Utah, 1,000,000 sheep were stranded and in danger of starvation. CCC enrollees braved the drifts and saved the flocks. THIS IS A LINK TO HURON-MANISTEE NATIONAL FORESTS.

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