Civilian Climate Corps and Western Reforestation and Mitigation: Rhetoric And/or Reality

Fire crews carry a hose down a hill as the Caldor Fire burns on both sides of Highway 50 about 10 miles east of Kyburz, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, as the fire pushes east prompting evacuation orders all the way to Echo Summit. The Caldor Fire, the nation’s top priority for firefighting resources, grew to more than 213 square miles (551 square kilometers) southwest of Lake Tahoe but containment remained at 12%, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Climate change has made the West warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make the weather more extreme and wildfires more destructive, according to scientists. (Sara Nevis/The Sacramento Bee via AP) I used this photo because it was in the Climate Corp AP story.


I’d like to start a discussion on a topic I’ve been wondering about, and that Bob Zybach brought up peripherally in a previous discussion of reforestation history.

I know that there is a massive push for a Climate Corps.  It appears that they would plant trees, and do wildfire mitigation, among a host of other things.  But, as Bob pointed out, previously when the Forest Service had big reforestation programs, it went from native workers to undocumented immigrants (how much an artifact of not being desirable jobs/ FS contracting policy?).  The 80’s were really different from today, but then so were the 30s (original CCC). And working in the woods has probably not changed all that much (or has it?)


Then there’s the issue of our current low paid positions going unfilled AKA labor shortage.  Certainly it would be an adventure for those wanting to get away from home and not join the military. But the military has had the problem with recruits being overweight and out of shape, I wonder whether the new CCC might have the same problem?

In this AP story:

While the jobs should pay at least $15 an hour, those likely to join the climate corps “are not doing it for the compensation,″ Neguse said. “They know it’s important to connect to nature and do important work for their state and the nation.″

Details are still being worked out, but Neguse and other Democrats say the program should pay “a living wage″ while offering health care coverage and support for child care, housing, transportation and education.


It seems to me that those are fundamentally different conditions than during the Depression, the origin of the CCC.  Also perhaps more people then (raised on farms?) were used to hard physical labor?

Here’s what a professor at Syracuse says:

David Popp, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University, said a key distinction between the original Civilian Conservation Corps and the new climate contingent is that the U.S. economy is not in a depression — great or otherwise — as it was during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency.

While U.S. employers added just 235,000 jobs in August, the unemployment rate decreased slightly to 5.2% as the economy continues to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Most of those being targeted for the new climate corps “could find employment elsewhere,″ Popp said, noting a proliferation of help-wanted signs at retail businesses across the nation.

“I don’t know that an unemployed coal worker in West Virginia is going to move to Montana to take a minimum-wage job to restore streams,″ he said.

On the other hand, some of his own students are highly motivated by the climate crisis and may want to spend a year or two on an outdoor job that helps address an existential threat to the planet, Popp said.

“Many young people are very passionate about the environment, and they may see this as an opportunity to do something about the environment and still get paid for it,″ he said.


A bit puzzling is what Senator Markey of Massachusetts said:

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a prominent supporter of the climate corps, said such criticism overlooks important benefits.

The program will help communities recover from climate disasters such as Hurricane Ida and Western wildfires while creating “good-paying jobs that can turn into clean-economy careers,″

I’m not sure reforestation or cutting and burning trees have ever led to “clean-economy” careers, but I’m sure they are different kinds of jobs in other parts of the country.  Say, solar installation might have a completely different career path than tree planting. Perhaps they would go  to school afterwards (at the same schools they would otherwise attend)?  And perhaps we have a pathway that has led already to many land managers and park ranger careers-  wildland firefighting.

And also puzzling..

Rep. Joe Neguse, a Colorado Democrat who has co-sponsored a climate corps bill, said it’s important to train the next generation of U.S. land managers, park rangers and other stewards of our natural resources.

“This bold investment is a necessary response to the climate crisis and prioritizes the maintenance and upkeep of public lands,″ he said.


I’m not disagreeing with him, but there are places where this training occurs, or at least the training that qualifies people to do those jobs in the federal government.  We’d have to ask the folks, say at CSU (in Neguse’s district) if they have enough students in the pipeline to fill future jobs.  In our world, there has always tended to be more people than jobs.. perhaps this has changed and we need more people in the pipeline?

Like so many political ideas that sound so plausible in DC, I wonder if these concepts have been vetted by those with experience running these kinds of programs.  Or maybe a way forward would be to try it on a smaller scale in different parts of the country, doing different kinds of projects, and learn by doing. We know our wildfire folks have been having trouble with Covid in camps.. is this a good time to start camps, or wouldn’t there be camps? Then there’s the question of locational social justice (I just made up that term).. if these jobs are in underserved or poor communities, should local people have some kind of priority? Maybe those concerns are all addressed in the bill- I haven’t read it, hopefully someone out there is familiar with it.

So I’m raising the question here.. does anyone have recent experience on how this might work in practice? Do States, our laboratories of democracy, have successful examples? Do our friends who run Job Corps centers and fire camps have any relevant observations?  And, of course, the historical perspective on major reforestation efforts is always welcome.


8 thoughts on “Civilian Climate Corps and Western Reforestation and Mitigation: Rhetoric And/or Reality”

    • I can’t clip the relevant quote out of NRM.. but is it to take people from disadvantaged communities and to import them to other disadvantaged communities?

      Do you pick the areas where people are disadvantaged to do work? We know those places.

      If so, you wouldn’t need to import other people from around the country, and you wouldn’t need camps because they already have homes. Perhaps not as shiny politically, but possibly more useful.

  1. On the wall above my computer desk hangs a 1933 panoramic photograph of my Dad and a couple hundred other CCC enrollees lined up in front of Camp Greek C. Rice on the Homochitto National Forest in Mississippi. With a year of college behind him and no other opportunities, he signed on for that dollar-a-day hard labor (all but five dollars a month sent home to families) opportunity for three meals and housing in large canvas tents and worked hard at road building and firefighting until he was able to enlist in the US Navy (from which he retired at the rank of captain forty years later) in 1937. He was a farm kid who’s picked cotton at four and plowed behind a mule at 10 and had never heard a radio. Could a sufficient number of today’s needful and mostly urban youths give up such modern amenities (including cell phones) to which they may have become accustomed for communal living at remote worksites planting trees for $15 per hour to absorb carbon in sufficient number to be effective? They’d have to live in sufficient numbers in moveable camps close to job sites; commuting from home daily would take too much time from work and produce more carbon than trees they might plant could sequester. And this is only one of many hard questions that would have to be asked and answered before such an undertaking might be implemented.

  2. When the White House “Climate Corps” E.O. issued, I posed similar questions to a friend who works in the Job Corps world. Here’s his response:

    The President’s Executive Order calls on the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to propose a strategy for a Civilian Climate Corps “within existing resources.” The President’s budget asks for $ 200 MM in additional funds. But neither specify exactly who would be enrolled or how it would work. A Federal program? Or Federal grants for state, community, and NGO programs?

    The Corps Network has suggested that the current enrollment of around 25,000 corps members across the “conservation corps movement” could be increased to maybe 100,000 within the existing infrastructure. Forest Service Job Corps, which is currently funded to support 3500 students, could increase to 5000 students at one time within existing facilities. The only place anyone’s really talking a million enrollees is in Congress. But all of that’s on the supply side.

    You’re absolutely right that this is not the 1930s, when 25% of American men were unemployed and very willing to work at anything that would keep them and their families from starving. Today in this country, reforestation, farm labor, and most outdoor manual labor isn’t performed by American citizens at all, and that seems unlikely to change.

    So if this is mostly about putting unemployed Americans to work doing hard manual labor for minimum wage far from their homes (the 1930s model), I doubt very many at all would sign up.

    If it’s more of an opportunity for young people to serve (the AmeriCorps or Peace Corps models) I think there’s room for expansion in our current offerings. Maybe not a million, but 100,000 or more across the diversity of community and NGO corps. A significant number of young (or retired) people will work at subsistence levels for a season or a year if they feel like they’re engaged in doing something good and/or get to go someplace new and have new life experiences. There’s a population who’s attracted to service, though the demographic skews toward those with enough economic security that they can afford it.

    If it’s more of an education and training program, focused on preparing people for careers (the Job Corps model), there’s definitely room for expansion and folks who need the services we provide. We’re essentially a vocational college offering no tuition and free room and board. Given how many people borrow substantial amounts of money to pay for college, I think there’s definitely a market if we offer it for free.

    And I haven’t heard this idea for a while, but in the past folks have talked about mandatory national service (civilian or military) as a vehicle for strengthening our common citizenship. If you were to mandate it, you’d get a lot of people, of course.

    So the bottom line, I think, is that “it depends.” It depends on what you’re offering, how much you’re prepared to pay for it, and what goals you want to accomplish.

  3. That’s a great set of answers, Andy! I too wondered if they would use existing programs or start something completely new.

    I’m hoping that they thought out the implications.. sending poor kids to vo tech for free would not be quite as good as guaranteed free tuition in the college program of their choice after x years in terms of upward mobility. But I’m cheered that folks behind the scenes are thinking about it and it’s not just “nice sounding words on paper”.

    I agree with what your source says about “There’s a population who’s attracted to service, though the demographic skews toward those with enough economic security that they can.” I think that would need to be a consideration in program design as well.

    • Andy and Sharon: I think you are both right. Circumstances are far different from the CCC years made possible by the Great Depression and that kind of model wouldn’t work today. Physical abilities, work ethics, and differing economics all make that kind of approach currently impossible. Adding “livable wages” to the mix only makes things more unlikely.

      That being said, the current model of having our agricultural work, reforestation, maid service, babysitting, landscaping, fast food services and other “entry level” work being largely performed by illegal aliens needs to be replaced as well. This modern form of near-slavery performed by traveling groups of underpaid “shadow” populations is unfair to both the people being subjugated to this treatment, as well as to our own working poor and middle class citizens. In addition to replacing local workforces for needed jobs at actual “living wages,” much of the money is sent “back home” to countries of origin, rather than renting local homes, purchasing local goods (other than bare living essentials), or otherwise contributing to local economies. People deserve better. Good wages and decent working conditions that attract local youths — whether for seasonal employment, public service, or as a career — would be one answer. People would need to pay more for pears, potatoes, and planted trees, of course, but fair is fair. And legitimate immigrants would have welcoming communities that valued (and paid for) their skills on a year-round basis. That’s one dream, anyway.

      My long-standing interest in PNW forest history has included a fair amount of research into the topics of CCCs and of reforestation. Bill Lansing, who became a foremost historian of southwestern Oregon forestry, fisheries, and saw milling following his career in Coos Bay with Menasha, has published an excellent book on CCC history that he has allowed our educational website,, to make available for free:

      Jerry Phillips, long-time manager and recognized historian of the Elliott State Forest, also donated his own book and several hours of oral history recordings on the history of CCCs and forestry on the Elliott:

      Video version (use “Show More” Index for Elliott CCCs, beginning 32:48):

      When I started planting trees in the mid-1960s, many of the people on the crews I worked were “older” (30s and 40s) alcoholics (“winos”) drafted directly from the streets (“skid row”). Within a few years the workforce shifted to several rural contractors, including myself, hiring young people from local communities. “Hippie” work cooperatives based in Eugene expanded this approach to include healthy young men and women from urban communities; many for idealistic reasons and also because many were otherwise unemployable due to haircuts and smoking habits. Here is an article I wrote on this history in 1983(!), with a focus on the reforestation of the 1933-1951 Tillamook Burn:

      Beginning in the late 1970s the USFS began awarding “low bid” tree planting contracts to seasonal agricultural workers from southwest Oregon. Most of the workers in many instances — and even some of the bidding contractors — were in the US illegally. Still, some of those taking advantage of this practice were rationalizing it as providing equity to minority workers and some even counted these heads as indications of their enlightened “diversity” employment efforts. These workers soon dominated the field due to their low cost and work ethics, and Weyerhaeuser, GP, and other industrial landowners soon followed the federal lead. This history is sympathetically portrayed by Brinda Sarathy in her 2012 book, “Pineros”:

      Spotted owls, marbled murrelets and their legal representatives began ending significant federal work in the early 1990s, but the use of migrant labor for reforestation projects has continued to dominate employment on state and industrial lands.

      In the 1930s, CCCs provided useful, steady employment for young men and prepared a nation for the subsequent war. The young adults of the 1950s and 1960s were raised by members of the CCCs and WW II, and their work ethics and the need for jobs was an inherited/enforced focus. Also, no cell phones and few child labor laws and hardly any illegal immigration. Also — state and county “poor farms” and “mental hospitals,” “vagrancy” laws and zero homeless people camped on our sidewalks. Most of these latter people seem to have mental, drug, and/or drinking problems that resulted in their situation. They need housing, treatment, and paying work if they are to succeed. Could a win-win situation be created from these circumstances? In addition to healthy and sturdy bodies needed to plant or cut trees, other people are needed to cook and clean for them, keep records, drive vehicles, care for children, etc.

      Our public forests are in great need of better management, homeless people are a disgrace to our cities and nation, and illegal aliens are being physically and economically abused to the advantage of a few and at great cost to everyone else, including themselves. Could these problems be addressed concurrently?

  4. Such a corps might provide jobs for those urban homeless who are able to work and want to work. I have been hopeful a CCC type program would be developed. There are still some old forest work centers that once housed TSI crews that thinned, burned slash piles, pruned trees, and also served as fire crews. They wouldn’t serve as formal hotshot crews, but could be trained to cut fireline and fall trees. Others could plant trees, collect cones and rebuild trails among other tasks.

  5. I grew up near some CCC plantations in Massachusetts. My recollection is that they were of Red Pine, which was not native & grew poorly. The CCC also seemed to do a bunch of tree planting out in the Great Plains which maybe served some purpose but isn’t necessarily what we’d want to do today. I’ve never seen any good evaluations of the CCC or its activities. Everyone seems to think it was great, but alot of the environmental ideas of the 1930s turned out to be not so great in retrospect, and I have no reason to think the CCC plantations were any different. What I have seen mostly talks about the positive impact on the people enrolled (i.e. that they had food to eat and hung out with a bunch of other young men out in the woods and learned some woodscraft), as opposed to whether their planting activities were beneficial.
    I guess I’m also not convinced that there is some giant tree planting deficit in the US. At least in regions of the country where I have worked, where timber companies or govt. agencies want to insure uniform reforestation with commercially desirable species, They don’t seem to have trouble finding commercial crews to do the work. Is there really demand for such a program? There might be more of a need to revitalize recreational facilities given soaring demand for recreation and declining status of infrastructure?
    I guess I’m just not clear where there are potential forests in the US that have high value for carbon storage, biodiversity, or commercial crops AND the limitation on those forests being there is that they are not getting planted (as opposed to that the land is privately owned and its more profitable to grow corn & soybeans or some other agricultural crops on them). When I do hear about areas where there may be a need for investment in planting for reforestation that is not getting done, it seems to be in areas of the intermountain west, which while clearly important to readers of this blog (i.e. because its where alot of national forests are), may provide less return on the public investment since those forests have limited carbon storage potential, are often far away from large human populations, are not particularly biodiverse, and have limited potential for producing commercial wood products.


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading