A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Reviving a depression-era program could help put young Kentuckians work in time of national crisis

By Nadia Ramlagan
Public News Service

The nation’s youth unemployment rate is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression, and some are calling for creating a new Civilian Conservation Corps to help rebuild the country’s parks and public lands at a time of national crisis.

Unemployment in the Commonwealth has soared to 15.4% amid the coronavirus pandemic. And Ward Wilson, executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, says a new CCC could put young Kentuckians to work reviving the state’s streams, which are an important habitat for wildlife and for the outdoor-recreation economy.

CCC members having a meal at camp. (Lewis Hine, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain)

“We’ve damaged a lot of our streams,” Wilson points out.” Some people say there aren’t very many streams you can find in the eastern United States that haven’t been changed in some way.

“We know how to go back and repair them, in terms of making them function better hydrologically, making the water quality better, but also bringing the wildlife back to it; make them alive again.”

Historians estimate that by 1937, there were 44 CCC camps in Kentucky employing more than 12,000 young people. During its nine-year run ending in 1942, the federal Civilian Conservation Corps employed more than 3 million workers nationwide.

Wilson adds that in 2015 the state identified more than 300 species as having the greatest conservation needs and has a plan at the ready to help protect them. He says the state park system currently is saddled with an $111 million backlog of maintenance and repairs.

“We’ve got a large national forest in eastern Kentucky, the Daniel Boone National Forest,” he states. “It has all sorts of facilities. They’re great facilities, but maintenance has been deferred for a long time. We’ve got the Mammoth Cave National Park. There are many things we could do there.”

Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, says a new CCC could offer Kentuckians jobs in outdoor recreation, agriculture, forestry and ranching to rural and Native American youths, and young people of color — all of whom are being hit hard with unemployment.

“It’s one of those solutions that actually solves 15 different public policy priorities all at once — and, I mean, I’d argue it’s as close to an economic recovery silver bullet as is out there right now,” he states.

O’Mara adds there’s no shortage of work to be done – 80 million acres of national forests need rehabilitation, and a half-million abandoned coal and hard-rock mines need reclamation.

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