Home > Uncategorized > National Park System History “Not a Bed of Roses” – A “Bitter Struggle” Against “Private Exploitation At The Hands Of The Selfish Few”

National Park System History “Not a Bed of Roses” – A “Bitter Struggle” Against “Private Exploitation At The Hands Of The Selfish Few”

Can we re-imagine and replicate a Green New Deal?

History provides a political and programmatic roadmap

CCC camp in the Tennessee Valley

CCC camp in the Tennessee Valley (Source: The Federal Art Project)

As we celebrate the 100th birthday of the National Park Service (NPS) – the government agency, not the national parks there are many lessons directly relevant to today’s emerging and inter-related climate and economic catastrophes. Perhaps the first and foremost lessons are political.

The key political lessons that reverberate today are the need for an expansive role of government: 1) to plan for the future and the benefit of the public, objectives not served by private “free market” values and institutions; 2) to check the greed and power of narrow private commercial interests who exploit both man and nature for short term selfish profit; and 3) to create a massive jobs program that is driven by environmental goals.

A largely forgotten chapter in the history of our national parks and the NPS was the New Deal era, the leadership of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), and the role of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC was one of the most popular New Deal programs, an idea which originated in State programs in California and New York.

A marvelous brief history of the role of the CCC in the national parks is “The Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Park Service, 1933 – 1942″.

President Roosevelt’s primary goal for the program was to take unemployed youths out of the cities and build up their health and morale while contributing to the economic recovery of the country. Not only would they receive wages for their work, but money would also be sent to their dependents so that the program would provide benefits to the greatest number of people. The work was to restore the enrollees to physical health and increase their confidence in themselves and the nation. A secondary goal of the program was to effect needed conservation measures on forest, park, and farm lands. A related goal was to provide the nation with increased recreational opportunities. The Park Service saw the program as a way to accomplish conservation and development within the national parks and to assist in the creation and enlargement of a nationwide state parks system. [1]

The first accomplishment of the CCC was having 250,000 young men working within three months of its establishment–the greatest peacetime mobilization of American youth. The next major accomplishment came in the coordination and development of a nationwide state parks program, one that was instrumental in establishing the first state parks for Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina, Mississippi, and New Mexico. In 1934, Oklahoma and Montana designated their first parklands. New parks were added or existing parks were expanded in 17 other states, including New York, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, California, and Michigan, as a direct result of the program. The state parks program also gave the Park Service an opportunity to set standards for park development and planning throughout the nation. Concerning national parks and monuments, the Park Service asserted that during the first few months of operation the ECW [CCC] advanced the cause of forestry work dramatically. It was estimated that millions of dollars of annual losses caused by forest fires, tree diseases, insects, rodent infestation, and soil erosion were prevented by this conservation effort. [2] [ …]

By the time the CCC was terminated in 1942 a total of 2 million enrollees had performed work in 198 CCC camps in 94 national park and monument areas and 697 camps in 881 state, county, and municipal areas. Through the CCC program 711 state parks had been established. …

Today, people look back on the Civilian Conservation Corps as one of the most successful New Deal programs…. In almost every presidential campaign, one candidate or another proposes to inaugurate a new CCC program. In less than 10 years the CCC left a lasting legacy for America and the National Park Service. The extensive development and park expansion made possible by the CCC was in large part responsible for the modern national and state park systems.

FDR aggressively promoted both the national park system and the CCC and – like Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein today – FDR championed a strong role for government and called out what we now refer to as the 1% and lambasted their selfishness and shortsighted greed.

Here’s an example of FDR’s leadership and rhetoric – a Radio Address from Two Medicine Chalet, Glacier National Park, delivered  on August 5, 1934

We should remember that the development of our national park system over a period of many years has not been a simple bed of roses. As is the case in the long fight for the preservation of national forests and water power and mineral deposits and other national possessions, it has been a long and fierce fight against many private interests which were entrenched in political and economic power. So, too, it has been a constant struggle to continue to protect the public interest, once it was saved from private exploitation at the hands of the selfish few.

It took a bitter struggle to teach the country at large that our national resources are not inexhaustible and that, when public domain is stolen, a twofold injury is done, for it is a theft of the treasure of the present and at the same time bars the road of opportunity to the future.

We have won the greater part of the fight to obtain and to retain these great public park properties for the benefit of the public. We are at the threshold of an even more important battle to save our resources of agriculture and industry from the selfishness of individuals.

Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein is calling for a Green New Deal to respond to the joint climate and jobs crises, but her campaign platform has yet to flesh that proposal out:

Create millions of jobs by transitioning to 100% clean renewable energy by 2030, and investing in public transit, sustainable agriculture, and conservation.

In addition to lacking substance to support her wonderful idea, Stein also has missed the opportunity presented by the highly visible national celebration of 100th anniversary of the NPS to link that call to the original New Deal and the role of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in our National Parks.

Like I said, history provides a political and programmatic roadmap.

Will we, as Paulo Freire said, make that road by walking?

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