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"With Picks, Shovels & Hope: The Legacy of the CCC on the Colorado Plateau"

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By Mark Herz

Flagstaff, AZ – (Additional questions and answers from co-author, Elizabeth A. Green.)

What distinguishes the civilian conservation corps from other new deal programs?

The CCC was the only residential New Deal program that focused strictly on youth participants. It is generally considered the most popular and successful of all the New Deal programs and definitely lasted the longest of any.

With unemployment hovering around 25%, it offered jobs to young men between 18 and 25, who were least likely to get work.

It put those young men in residential camps, away from their home communities, where other social and economic influences might have influenced their participation.

It imposed a strict, military regimen in the camps by putting the Army (and sometimes Navy) in charge of running them.

It empowered the public lands agencies to identify the areas of greatest need locally and develop work projects to meet them.

It fostered the development of leadership skills by offering CCCers the chance to advance to junior and senior leadership positions. Those who did could stay with the program far beyond the usual 12-month limit.

It recognized the importance of education and not only taught literacy with remarkable success, but also provided the foundation that led many CCCers to go on to college and even earn advanced degrees.

It monitored participants' health, both by ensuring at the outset that they were physically fit for the work they would be doing, and by continually tracking their health. On average, CCCers gained 11 pounds in the course of their enrollment.

What lessons can be learned from the CCC for a similar program today?

Don't waste valuable time fighting over details: The federal government didn't waste time wrangling over details of the program. They identified the four federal agencies (Labor, Defense, Interior, and Agriculture) that would be in charge of various aspects of the CCC and told them to get it done. The collaboration among four departments of government - and, in turn, with state governments - compelled them to cooperate toward common goals rather than compete for limited dollars.

Allow for local variation: General eligibility guidelines were set at the federal level, but selection of participants was left to local jurisdictions, which often adapted them to special circumstances.

Target youth: Giving young people a sense of purpose, teaching them skills, and taking care of their physical, social, spiritual, and emotional needs was critical to the success of the CCC. Young adults are the first to lose out in times of high unemployment because they lack job experience. The result is a loss of self-esteem, the lack of opportunity to develop important skills, and social unrest. Even 50 years later, former CCCers commonly said it was the single most meaningful experience of their lives. That's a very powerful testament to what the CCC did for America's youth.

Spread benefits beyond the participants: Out of their $30 per month pay, $25 was sent home. The participants' families received invaluable help, which gave CCCers a purpose beyond themselves. They saved family homes; they fed their younger siblings; they kept families intact. In many instances, those families put aside what they could and later applied that money to the cost of higher education for their CCC sons - savings that would have been impossible under any other circumstances.

Identify a national need that can be met with a public works program: The CCC addressed a critical need in the country - conservation and improvement of public lands - and created a program to meet it. It didn't waste time debating whether that was the best use of federal dollars or manpower - although there certainly was controversy over the program - but rather made a decision and moved forward with it. The program also was allowed to evolve over time, as lessons were learned and economic circumstances changed.

Do you think a CCC program could work today?

Our public lands certainly could use help. The infrastructure of our national parks, monuments, and forests has suffered from heavy use and budget constraints for years. Wildfire has consumed vast expanses of forested lands in the West, and disease is rampant. Enormous swaths of forest are dead and dying from disease, insect infestation, drought and overcrowding.

What's more, young people, both men and women, would be an appropriate target group for a public works program.

However, it's important to identify the areas of greatest need and greatest national benefit. I'm sure there were many competing interests in 1933 when FDR chose to focus on public lands. Perhaps President-elect Obama will be guided in a different direction. The important consideration is where such a program can have the greatest impact, not only in the projects it undertakes, but also on the participants who carry them out.

What distinguishes the CCC on the Colorado Plateau, which is the focus of your book?

The Colorado Plateau is a 140,000-square-mile area, roughly the size of Montana. Spreading across southern Utah, northern Arizona, western Colorado, and northwestern New Mexico, it is home to the greatest concentration of national parks, monuments and forests in the country. Even today, you can travel for hours without seeing a single house or business. Within the Plateau, you can climb 12,000-foot mountains and descend 6,000 feet to the floor of the Grand Canyon. Pre-European archaeological sites are prevalent throughout much of the area, from the famous cliff dwellings to pit houses and work sites.

Transportation to the camps and daily work projects was often challenging, requiring hours of riding in open trucks. Getting heavy equipment to remote worksites required not only muscle but also ingenuity, especially for the men building trails in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

CCCers from the south and Midwest found it hard to adjust to the high, dry, lonesome environment. City boys were unsettled by the remoteness of their camps. Some went "over the hill," as they said for deserters, but most stayed and adjusted. Many even came to love the area and settled here permanently.

Nationally, the CCC is known as Roosevelt's Tree Army. And while planting trees was an important part of their work on the Colorado Plateau, it was not the main focus. Rather, they fought fires, insects, and animals that were destroying the forests. Some of their activities would be frowned upon today, but at the time, public lands managers employed the tactics they felt would be most effective to preserve threatened forests.

One of the most visible legacies of the CCC on the Colorado Plateau is their stonework. They quarried stone, shaped it, and used it to build structures, drainage culverts, bridges, curbing, entrance signs, and walls. Although I did not encounter any stories of CCCers who went on to careers as stonemasons, they learned a lot about working with rock during their time here and much of what they built survives to this day.

What surprised you the most in your research for this book?

More than anything, I was amazed at the speed with which the program was mobilized. Imagine putting together the staff to run the camp and the work program, building the bunk houses or finding tents for everyone, providing beds, tables and chairs to eat at, kitchen equipment, food, water, bathrooms and showers, clothing, equipment, and vehicles for a camp of 200 young men - all in a matter of a few months. Now multiply that by the thousands of camps established in the first few months of the program. The fact that they were able to pull everything together and make it work is astonishing, given the usually slow pace of change in government. Then imagine getting all those things to remote locations where the closest town was a 2- or 3-hour drive away, and the only roads were little more than faint tracks through the dirt.

Two stories bring home the magnitude of that undertaking:

Thurlow Pitts, who had grown up nearby, was one of the first enrollees at Colorado National Monument in western Colorado. He recalled being issued itchy wool army uniforms and blankets in the heat of summer. The pants legs were so tight that they couldn't get them over their feet. They were given mattress ticking and straw to stuff it. Pitts said the straw wouldn't have won any prizes at the county fair. They lived in tents until their bunkhouses could be completed and a few months later, they moved into their permanent camp was completed. Pitts said it felt like they were moving into the Taj Majal. But two years later, the uniforms were still a challenge. One man described being issued pants that had a waist that was much too large for him, and legs that were much too short. Another man told me he was issued boots that were a size and a half too small for his feet. He said he just kept his toes curled all the time. Remarkably, I found very little complaining about those challenges - only gratitude for the opportunity to work and help their families back home.

The men who worked at a camp in the bottom of the Grand Canyon were building a trail along a steep cliff wall, and needed several compressors to power the jackhammers. Louis Purvis, a Texan who had been promoted to a leadership job by then, recalled that it took 50 men to haul a 2,000-pound compressor down the 7-mile trail from the south rim, half of them pulling from the front and the other half holding them back from behind. They made the trip five times, then had to haul three of the compressors across the river in an aerial tram with ladders at both ends. It's not surprising that the men who helped called themselves "mules."

Another surprise was the CCC-Indian Division, which I'd never heard of before working on With Picks, Shovels & Hope. It was a separately administered program on Indian reservations, with significantly different eligibility requirements and organization. Many of the Indian CCCers lived at home during their enrollment, and most of their work focused on needs within their reservations.

Through my close work with Mesa Verde National Park, I had known that many of the most skilled archaeological stabilization workers were Navajo. But I had not known that the CCC formed a specialized team of Navajo stonemasons, and although the group was disbanded during WWII, it was reinstated under the National Park Service after the war. They developed many of the standards of practice used to this day. The mobile unit continued to operate for decades, until parks and monuments formed their own stabilization teams.

The story of the Indian CCC is more difficult to research, because records were maintained separately, and oral histories are hard to find, if they exist at all. I hope some graduate student will latch onto that subject and make it the topic of a dissertation. It is a story that deserves much more attention than we were able to give it in this book.

How did you get interested in the Civilian Conservation Corps?

I am primarily a book editor, and had edited two books on the CCC in the Southwest before being asked to participate in this project. I have a long-standing interest in public lands - I volunteer as a docent for public lands where I live, and am married to a retired forester. What's more, my father-in-law was superintendent of three CCC camps in Northern Wisconsin. So the program has been a topic of conversation and interest in our family for many, many years.

I have a deep love for the Colorado Plateau, and was delighted to have the chance to examine the many ways in which the CCC impacted the area, as well as learn so many wonderful stories about the men who came here to improve our public lands. I have been deeply moved by the profound influence their CCC years had on their lives, and inspired by what the government was able to accomplish in the midst of such trying times.

Everywhere I go, I encounter people with their own family CCC stories. The effects of the program are still being felt, and will be for a long time to come. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be very proud of the legacy of his Tree Army.