On March 4, once upon a time known as Inauguration Day, Americans marked the 80th anniversary of the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and, with it, the creation of the environmental movement.
Now, I know what you may be thinking. Between the two Roosevelts, chances are you’d pick Teddy if asked to name who was America’s first “environmental president.”
And TR would be a good answer. He was, after all, a pioneer of the American conservation movement, champion of our national park system and an amateur zoologist who liked to spend his spare time on yearlong safaris. But Teddy’s distant cousin Franklin was no environmental slouch himself. His own green thumb while president should not be discounted.
Before he sent American soldiers overseas to fight fascism, FDR scattered more than 2.5 million young Americans like seeds about the country and told them to plant trees — more than 3 billion of them.
The year was 1933, and this mobilization of budding Johnny Appleseeds was called the Civilian Conservation Corps — the CCC — affectionately known as “Mr. Roosevelt’s Tree Army.” The CCC was just one of the many “alphabet agencies” created by Roosevelt to shore up the Great Depression-ravaged sector of American society.
By the time Roosevelt bravely declared in his first inaugural address that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” America lay prostrate from an economic collapse that paralyzed not only the leaders of its own government but governments all around the globe.
During his famous first “Hundred Days,” Roosevelt reached deep down into his progressive roots and began ordering up new agencies like courses from an Italian restaurant, a veritable banquet of relief for beleaguered farmers, laborers, bankers, businesspeople and the elderly.
What Americans remember most about President Roosevelt might include Social Security, the GI Bill, the United Nations, recovering from the Great Depression and winning World War II. Each of these achievements touched Americans either directly or indirectly. As a teacher, I always tell my students that history is tangible. While there is no question that Social Security, which pulled the nation’s elderly out of poverty, will always rank as Roosevelt’s signature domestic accomplishment, my favorite chapter of the New Deal story has always been the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The CCC’s life was short, lasting only from 1933 until 1942, and ending when the world war raging across two hemispheres killed the program by depriving it of its manpower. Yet, its impacts are with us still, even if we don’t always recognize them.
The global warming crisis of the 1920s and 1930s was the Dust Bowl that wreaked havoc across the American Midwest. The CCC helped combat this environmental scourge by building roads, restoring sites, reinforcing small dams and, of course, planting those 3 billion trees.
But it wasn’t just the environment that benefited from the work of the CCC. Millions of jobless Americans did, too. Young men who had never graduated from high school nor had three meals a day now had a chance and a cause for hope. And hope can be a kind of sustenance when all else around you is futility.
The CCC gave these workers a solid education, good health and a hard discipline — enough so that when America finally did go to war in late 1941, it was CCC men who were first in line.
Those who worked for the CCC made $30 a month, with $25 going home at a time when the dollar bought a lot more than it does today. That $25 for mom back home helped pay for groceries and pay the bills, with even some left over to stash away in the bank.
So, in its own way, the Roosevelt administration was helping the private sector recover through “trickle-down economics” long before Ronald Reagan coined that phrase.
So, what did the CCC do? Those early New England ski paths? Built by the CCC. Those roads, guard shacks, picnic areas, ponds, bathhouses and pedestrian paths that visitors enjoyed at state and national parks? Built by the CCC. The Blue Hills Reservation in Canton and Breakheart Reservation in Saugus? Built by the CCC.
The commonwealth of Massachusetts also received 12 million trees from among the billions we already know the CCC planted.
When you look at a stone dam, or a wooden canopy in a picnic area, it’s likely you are looking at something created by the hands of young CCC members. As a son of Revere, I benefited from their work on trips to Breakheart Reservation and Harold Parker State Park. You, too, might have enjoyed their craftsmanship and not even known it.
The greater park movement in this country began in the late 19th century to give citizens a respite from the daily grind of modern life. Only the rich at that time could visit the beautiful gardens at places like Tivoli and Versailles. For the working classes, a trip to Mount Auburn Cemetery for a family picnic was more the norm.
During the early years of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt recognized that preserving this nation’s open space, and therefore its history, was necessary to preserving a country’s well-being.
TR doubled the number of national parks and put millions of acres into land trusts. Franklin made his own mark as a conservationist by preserving and expanding upon his older kinsman’s great work.
As an American, I am thankful for Society Security, the GI Bill, depositary insurance against panics to prevent runs on the bank and the countless other New Deal programs that still benefit us today.
But the national endowment of which I am most grateful and most proud is the natural inheritance passed down to us by all those millions of young men who enlisted in “Mr. Roosevelt’s Tree Army” to labor long hours in the fresh air and hot sun for the CCC.
The CCC’s parks give us solace; its trees provide clean air; and those ponds, reservations and trails built by jobless young men down on their luck — who were once without hope — offer all of us a living, breathing reminder of what is possible when a nation is fortunate enough to have a government that cares.
Anthony T. Guerriero of Lynnfield is a senior visiting instructor of American history at Salem State University, where a celebration of Earth Days will feature lectures and events on sustainability April 8-12.