Delaware needs a 21st century Civilian Conservation Corps

August 24, 2020

As we continue to see the devastating impact of the ongoing pandemic, we need to summon solutions that match the magnitude of the moment.

One challenge we will have to address is the youth unemployment crisis. Young Americans are out of work at a level not seen since the Great Depression. This crisis touches all demographics, but disproportionally affects youth of color, indigenous youth and rural youth.  The good news is that we already have a strong foundation upon which to build.

Shortly after his inauguration in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to “conserve our natural resources, create future national wealth and prove of moral and spiritual value not only to those of you who are taking part, but to the rest of the country as well.” Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” ultimately employed 3.4 million young men, who planted 3 billion trees, created more than 700 state and local parks, and constructed trails across the country.

You may not even realize that some of the parks you visit today were improved by the young people of the original CCC. In Delaware alone, CCC workers planted 274,000 trees and improved nearly 700 acres of forest. Today there are similar tasks waiting to be addressed. The National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges in Delaware have backlogs in the millions of dollars, much of it involving straightforward projects like campgrounds, trails, wastewater systems, paved and unpaved roads, and rustic buildings. 

Delaware Sen. Chris Coons is helping to lead the charge to establish a 21st century CCC to help put young Americans to work, restoring our natural places and fixing infrastructure. These types of investments in restoration, recreation, and resilience create good-paying jobs more quickly than many other alternatives because most of the funds go toward labor, rather than materials.

To scale up quickly, we could build on the existing AmeriCorps program and we could have these young workers implement shovel-ready state, local and federal plans.

For example, we all remember the devastation that Hurricane Sandy wreaked on Delaware. A new CCC could help protect us from future storms by restoring coastal habitats like dunes, oyster reefs and marshes. These workers could also prevent floods upstream by restoring wetlands and floodplains - saving lives and money in the long run.

Youth-led restoration efforts could also help the nearly 700 species of concern identified by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

Take the intertwined fates of the red knot and horseshoe crab, both of which have declined dramatically in recent years. Many of the same types of coastal restoration efforts that would help protect Delaware’s coastal residents from storms would also help protect the habitats on which horseshoe crabs rely. 

Time is of the essence. We need to lay the groundwork now, so we can swiftly put young people to work restoring America’s natural treasures as soon as it is safe. 

A new Conservation Corps will not just help restart the economy, it will increase our strength and resilience as a nation.

Anne Harper is Delaware Nature Society executive director 
and Collin O’Mara is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.
  • Cape Gazette commentaries are written by readers whose occupations, education, community positions or demonstrated focus in particular areas offer an opportunity to expand our readership's understanding or awareness of issues of interest.

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