LOOK EAST from the benches on top of Red Rocks Amphitheatre and Denver’s skyline is just visible in the distance. The venue, ringed by sandstone cliffs, is where many Coloradans saw their first concert and where fitness junkies gather for early-morning yoga. Less well known is the role the amphitheatre played in American history. It was built by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a New Deal programme that put some 3m men to work building infrastructure and parks during the Great Depression. Now “Roosevelt’s Tree Army”, as the corps was called, may be getting a 21st-century makeover. President Joe Biden, who has not been coy about his admiration for FDR or his desire to emulate the New Deal, wants to fund a new version of the CCC aimed at tackling climate change and its effects.
There is no shortage of work to be done. In 2020 nearly $12bn in maintenance was needed in America’s national parks. Western states want to increase controlled burns and forest thinning so blazes do not turn into megafires. The infrastructure bill Mr Biden signed doubles as a climate to-do list, allocating money to clean up abandoned mines, help communities prepare for and recover from natural disasters and set up charging stations for electric cars.
Mr Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps would be funded by the $1.7trn “Build Back Better” bill that lawmakers are haggling over. As it stands, about $15bn of the roughly $500bn devoted to climate measures would create 300,000 jobs through AmeriCorps, a national-service agency. Sceptics say the corps’ mission lacks focus. What exactly counts as conservation or resilience anyway? John Barrasso, a Republican senator from Wyoming, has interpreted the “tree army” nickname literally, arguing that the corps is a front for lefties to “wage war” on the fossil-fuel industry.
To get a sense of what a revamped CCC would actually do, turn to Colorado. The state recently announced the creation of its own climate corps, which supporters hope will act as a pilot for the federal programme. It awarded the Colorado Youth Corps Association (CYCA) a new AmeriCorps grant worth $1.7m a year for three years, creating 240 new positions for young people. The idea that the CCC is a brand-new programme isn’t true, says Scott Segestrom, executive director of the CYCA: “It is building on existing infrastructure.” Each year between 1,400 and 1,800 people serve in Colorado’s conservation corps. The new grant will merely swell their ranks. Funding for a federal corps would similarly beef up existing programmes across the country.
Climate work conjures up images of physical labour in the backcountry. In Colorado, some new corps members will train as wildland firefighters or rip out invasive plants that suck up more water than the parched West can afford. But the Mile High Youth Corps, which serves 23 counties on Colorado’s Front Range, also offers an example of the work a federal climate corps could perform in cities and suburbs. Workers often install energy- and water-saving equipment, such as high-efficiency toilets or shower aerators, in poor communities.
All this sounds good in theory. But there are roadblocks to implementing a programme like Colorado’s in every state. When Roosevelt started the CCC in 1933, some 13m Americans were out of work. The Depression had squashed livelihoods and farmers had abandoned their fields as dust storms suffocated the Plains. The corps was meant to lift its workers and their families out of poverty. Shannon Dennison, a preservationist who is restoring the old CCC camp near Red Rocks, points out that corps members had to send $25 of the $30 they earned each month home.
In the early months of the pandemic, when at least 20m Americans were unemployed, the circumstances seemed comparable. But now firms across industries are scrambling to find workers. Even proponents of Mr Biden’s corps admit that recruiting enough young people to toil in labour-intensive jobs for little pay will be difficult. Joe Neguse, a Democratic congressman from Colorado who led the push for the CCC in the House of Representatives, says increasing pay and benefits is crucial to recruiting a more diverse corps than that of the 1930s, which consisted mostly of single white men. Still, half of Americans under 45 surveyed by Data for Progress, a left-leaning pollster, said they would consider working in a climate corps. Some may soon get their chance.■