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Wild Side: Time to install Civilian Conservation Corps 2.0

For more than a century now, Americans have been taking all we can from public lands — timber, oil, gas and minerals. We have given very little back. It’s time to reinvest and to restore national parks, forests and grasslands. We need more intact ecosystems, better recreation opportunities and to reduce fire hazards to communities.

How can we do all this? We can do it with a Civilian Conservation Corps 2.0.

The original Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a program that ran from 1933 until 1942 and employed hundreds of thousands of people during the Great Depression. Many of the cabins, fire lookouts and trails that we enjoy today are a result of this program.

After World War II, many national forests were decimated. Clearcutting, herbicides and other industrial forms of management were made possible by the machinery of the day, with little thought of the consequences. Fish, wildlife, and watersheds all took a hit and still suffer.

As plantation-style forestry became the norm, vast expanses of old-growth forests were replaced with tightly-spaced tree farms. Today there are millions of acres of public and private industrial lands filled with these plantations. We now know that these tree plantations tend to burn in wildfire events with greater severity than older forests.

In comes our favorite mascot, Smokey Bear, who was very good at his job. The Forest Service and private industry put out just about every natural forest fire for decades. They did not realize that suppression of forest fires would lead to a buildup of flammable small trees and brush.

As we settle into the 21st century, we are seeing with great clarity that we have a real fire problem on our hands. We have more tree plantations, more young flammable vegetation near our homes, and now we have climate change too. The Forest Service is breaking records with money spent and the duration of fires.

We have neglected national parks and recreation areas as well. Once the pride of the nation, they are now in disrepair with a massive maintenance backlog. While the demand is greater than ever for outdoor recreation, many Forest Service trails and campgrounds are shuttered because of a lack of resources.

If ever there was a time to reinvest in public lands, it is now. But how do we do that? How do we solve the fire problem, keep campgrounds open, restore watersheds and give back to the land?

I propose that we recreate a Conservation Corps based on the 1930s program and start investing resources in public lands. Call it CCC 2.0.

Here is where we could start: State and federal agencies and private contractors already employ tens of thousands of temporary firefighters every year. We build up a massive workforce in June and July for only a few months, the rains finally come and everyone goes home.

If we built a year-round workforce like the CCC, the same crews, equipment and skills used to fight fire could be used to get fire back into forests with controlled burns. By creating defensible space — an area around homes clear of flammable vegetation — these same crews could do the vast work needed to protect homes in the event of a wildfire.

If our leaders made this a priority, it would not be difficult to get the job done. Right here in the Rogue Valley, groups like Lomakatsi Restoration Project and Siskiyou Mountain Club could be funded to keep trails open, restore forests and reduce the fire threat to communities. Native tribes, which lived with and used fire for thousands of years and whose land was often stolen from them, could use their wisdom and workforce to help restore fire to forests and restore salmon habitat.

Public lands are irreplaceable treasures. They provide unparalleled beauty, recreation opportunities and a place for wild nature to thrive. But they have been abused and neglected. We can renew some of the lost glory to public lands and put much-needed work into protecting our communities from wildfire. It is time for CCC 2.0.

— Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild, 541-488-5789, www.kswild.org). His Wild Side column appears every three weeks.

Photo from FDR LibraryA Civilian Conservation Corps crew in 1933.