Before they became known as Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation, many of the young men who served in World War II were part of the Civilian Conservation Corps. They were the “CCC boys” who planted trees, built parks and trails, and fought fires and floods.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was created 75 years ago, signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on March 31, 1933. It was just a few weeks after his March inauguration, in the midst of the Depression. The CCC offered jobs, room and board, and a salary of $30 a month, with $25 sent home to impoverished families.
Young men began signing up immediately. There were three million of them over the life of the program, and they left us quite a legacy. But when the program ended in 1942, the nation was at war with no time for monuments or accolades.
The Civilian Conservation Corps’ achievements are vast. With camps in every one of the 48 states, the CCC built most of the state parks across the nation, including more than 20 parks in California. If you’ve hiked on Mt. Diablo or camped at Pfeiffer Big Sur you’ve seen the CCC’s handiwork. If you’ve heated a pot of coffee at your campsite, it was likely on one of thousands of stone stoves the CCC built. Crews also worked in the national parks, such as Yosemite. They constructed trails and massive granite steps – work that I as a backcountry trails supervisor admired first-hand 50 years later.
There were 30,000 young men working in California CCC camps in 1934. That same year, an 18-year-old named Robert Griffiths was living in Utica, New York. “Things were tough. We were hungry, in bad shape,” he said. “My father read about the CCC and went down to city hall to see if I were eligible. I was and joined about a week later.” He stayed for three years.
Today, Griffiths is 91 years old and lives near Sacramento. He doesn’t quite look like a “CCC boy” anymore, but the impact of the program has never left him.
More than 30 years ago, he co-founded the CCC national alumni association and helped get California’s Conservation Corps State Museum off the ground in the 1980s. He planted a tree in Capitol Park with Gov. Deukmejian for the CCC’s 50th anniversary. And he recently spoke about the 1930s CCC to Sacramento high school students.
Griffiths wouldn’t have much difficulty recognizing today’s California Conservation Corps. There are women now, yes, but from the acronym on down, the programs and core values are much alike. Our corpsmembers tackle a portfolio of natural resource work throughout the state that includes energy conservation and today’s other environmental priorities.
The Civilian Conservation Corps embodied service to our country during the roughest of times. We have a younger generation now who may not be as hungry or poor, but who are learning life’s lessons through hard work and service to others.
The original CCC set an example – and a high bar – for the programs it spawned. Today’s California program was established by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1976, the first corps since FDR’s time. More than 100 regional and state corps have followed, then the national AmeriCorps program in 1993. Recently, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver announced the creation of the first cabinet-level position in the country for service and volunteering. All of these efforts have a direct line of ancestry back to the Civilian Conservation Corps.
As head of our modern-day CCC, my dream is to ultimately leave a legacy of both projects and outstanding citizens as did our predecessors. We salute the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps and know we have some very big boots to fill.
David Muraki is director of the California Conservation Corps. He joined the program on January 22, 1978 as a crew supervisor and worked in various positions until 1996. He returned to the Corps after being appointed director by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2007.