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The Birth and Death of the CCC

A Review of Neil M. Maher’s Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps

Neil M. Maher, PhD, is an assistant professor and graduate coordinator of the department of history at New Jersey’s Science and Technology University. He is interested in 20th-century history; the history of technology and medicine; and landscape studies. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and his PhD in history from New York University.


The New Deal comprised a series of economic programs, one of the longest lasting and most popular of which was the Civilian Conservation Corps. Neil M. Maher explores the vivid details of the rise and fall of the Civilian Conservation Corps in his book Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps: The Roots of American Environmental Movement. Throughout his book, he probes the causes and effects and portrays the landscape created by the CCC, which “democratized [Progressive Conservation] by continually introducing the theory and practice of conservation to the CCC’s working-class in enrollees.”1 Perhaps most importantly, the corps appealed to the broad spectrum of Americans.

Maher’s book begins with the preface, in which he presents a small portion history of the CCC’s and conservation prologue to the corps. The Conservation began in the Progressive Era, which “played a vital role in transforming political power in Washington D.C.”2 Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite-National Park linked a natural resource policy to the expansion of federal power. These conversation philosophies and ideologies influenced President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. For example, Frederick Law Olmsted, a nineteen century journalist and father of the American landscape architecture, “believed that one’s natural surroundings influenced social behavior which influenced the CCC work projects.”3 Maher depicts the philosophies and ideologies that influenced the corps. Roosevelt first encountered conservation issues in his own Hyde Park Estate. There were two conservation philosophies that main influenced FDR’s actions throughout the New Deal. First, Pinchot’s philosophy, concerning the regulation of private land for the sake of the state’s public forest, played a role in Roosevelt’s actions throughout his political career. John Muir, a self-taught Scotsman, believed “in preserving nature’s beauty for its own sake as well as for the spiritual sake of humankind;” his philosophy increasingly influenced the CCC as the Great Depression wore on.4 Perhaps the most sensational battle was the Roosevelt-Jones Bill, a response to the disturbing disforestation occurring in the Upstate New York’s Adirandack Forest Preserve. Roosevelt’s most progressive attempt at conservation was in advocating the Hewitt Amendment, which authorized the state to purchase abandoned farmland, reforest it, and scientifically manage the land. Both the Roosevelt-Jones Bill and the Hewitt Amendment helped aid Roosevelt’s political power expand, but the Hewitt Amendment expanded his power nationally. Because Franklin had an anti-urban, pro rural rhetoric, it appealed to both the political Left and Right, with the rise of agrarianism. The attraction from this broad group of Americans also helped his political power. With six of years involvement in Boy Scouts, Roosevelt was concerned about unemployed among male youths, associating this issue with an urban setting; therefore, Roosevelt and many Progressive Environmentalists promoted the relocation of young urban adults to the country side. In 1931, the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, a relief organization, created jobs in forestry that foreshadowed the coming of CCC.

Once President Roosevelt immediately established the CCC in 1933. The corps required organization while the Department of Labor controlled recruitment. The Department of War inspected the daily functioning of CCC camps, the Department of Agriculture supervised the conservation projects, and the Department of the Interior oversaw the work performed in parks. With locations determined, FDR “made sure that spread across the corps spread its camps and conservation projects across the entire country but focused on areas that had little democratic support.”5 The corps helped expand acres three times the size of Connecticut from barren wastelands to fertile farmlands. Because the program was temporary, the number of corps projects varied and changed throughout the years. During the first months of the CCC, the corps projects quickly became associated with restoring the nation’s forests, since the Copeland Report of 1932 brought a widespread of anxiety over the nation’s stated timber supplies. Replenishing the trees of the forest, CCC enrollees picked seeds off of trees, streams, and lakes. The corps improvement works first expanded the nation’s timbered landscape and subsequently protected the development of trees that were already maturing. To protect nation’s timbers against the destructive forces (nicknamed the Three Horse Man: fire, insects, and disease), it reacted militantly. The CCC physically corrected the forest landscape by reducing tree combustion while destroying plants hosting diseases, bugs, and eggs; soon after, 20 million acres of timber were salvaged. When the Dust Bowl damaged the earth and the economy of the prairie lands, FDR responded with a national soil resources survey: Bennett’s Reconnaissance Erosion Survey of United States. It discovered that half of the United States land mass experienced moderate to severe erosion. Consequently, the corps expanded its soil conservation work, which mainly consisted of soil conservation projects on privately owned farms. Allowing the CCC to work on the private sector, farmers signed a “cooperative agreement,” which demonstrated “to all farmers how they may conserve soil and water most effectively and most economically.”6 To improve soil production, the two types of soil projects were the vegetative methods and organizational method. When the National Park Service announced the three reasons for the Great Depression, the national parks boomed with tourists. Therefore, the CCC expanded into recreational development in National Parks; the improvement projects consisted of structural improvement projects, transportation projects, and landscape and recreation work. Not only had the corps benefited the youth and their families economically, but the enrollees experienced personal improvements in health and strength. Affected by their environment and economy, CCC enrollees arrived in poor condition. This forced the corps to rejuvenate these young men through eliminating the ones beyond redemption, preparing examination in conditioning camps for one to three weeks, and rebuilding their muscles by laboring. Many enrollees were ignorant and oblivious of nature, and less than 10 percent received even a high school degree. Therefore, the CCC appointed several conservation professionals to each camp to oversee work projects and taught laborers through a voluntary night school. Throughout the duration of New Deal, these enrollees transformed from boys to men. The corps altered the conservation movement and labor politics of the New Deal.

The two ideal examples of the Civilian Conservation Corps and its effects are the Coon Creek and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks. Destroyed by the Dust Bowl, the farmlands were restored by the CCC campaign to reduced soil erosion. While Coon Creek had soil issues, the Rockies lacked trees. After the corps restored the forest of the Great Smoky Mountain and its ecosystem, the CCC began working on Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Both areas the corps changed naturally and artificially. Also, the appointed young men helped pump money through “movie theaters, pool halls, bars, restaurants, and shops.”7 Moreover, the CCC targeted general Americans. Promotions of these works in Coon Creek and Great Smoky Mountain increased public moral support. In the New Deal, even “manufacturers similarly enlisted the Corps to hawk a host of consumer goods to the American public.”8 The CCC’s promotional campaign publicized the corps and its works through newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, work projects, radio programs, films, and plays. Responding to these promotions, Americans replicated the corps’ works and projects. During the beginning of the New Deal, Americans had similar views of conservation, which the CCC defined it as helping “to restore not forest nor fields but the health and vigor of the American people.”9 Yet, criticism and opposition began to grow from a local minority group through the late 1930s. Wildlife scientist accused the CCC’s efforts as destructive, often destroying or damaging the ecosystem because of the lack knowledge for the ecosystem of that area. Aldo Leopold, one of the planners in Coon Valley, first an ardent supporter, became a strident critic. Merritt L. Fernald, a Harvard botany professor, accused the CCC for disturbing the ecological balance. His “ecological opposition...quickly made its way to the nation’s capital and from there spread across the continent by way of the national parks.”9

Of the New Deal years, Roosevelt’s reorganization of the federal government in 1937 and 1938 stood out. In this effort, Roosevelt merged all the federal conservation agencies under the command of one agency: the Department of Conservation. Because the increasing amount of political problems threatens the presidential power, Roosevelt and his advisors believed one agency will rid these problems. However, this agency lacked the coordination between federal conservation agencies. When the Tennessee Valley Authority desperately needed labor, the CCC “provided the manpower necessary to transform plans formulated on paper in Washington, D.C.”10 Unlike Coon Valley and Great Smoky Mountain, CCC focused on reforesting the Valley, on decreasing soil erosion, and on controlling the flooding. Though the CCC under the Department of Conservation seemed successful in Tennessee Valley, Ding Darling’s “Kidnapping” destroyed FDR’s effort for reorganization. As the CCC came to an end, younger Americans restored the CCC, which led to a new conservation movement. On July 2, 1942, Congress liquidated the CCC because the Great Depression waned and manpower shifted to the war effort. The CCC became three permanent agencies: the United States Forest Service, National Park Service, and Soil Conversion Service. With massive funding and extensive employment, the corps expanded and democratized the meaning of conservation.

From the beginning to the end of the book, Neil M. Maher traces the roots of the CCC. Describing the success of the corps in labor, he offers to reconsider modern environmentalism. Also, he challenges readers to follow the environmental ethics which bonded Americans close together. Despite its liquidation, the CCC spirit continues to endure to this day. Because the CCC extended beyond the Progressive conservation, it laid the foundations for modern environmentalism. Consequently, the camps were not democratic since Native Americans and African Americans were segregated; some number of exceptions that did not have to be single was World War I veterans, Native Americans. The CCC affected the general population of Americans from youth to elders.

Before Nature’s New Deal was written, historians who desired to learn more about the CCC they needed to go through numerous local and case studies and administrative histories. However, Maher’s book satisfies with much information about the CCC. History influences the way a person thinks and acts. A historiography clarifies history through a critical analysis of the sources and synthesization of the chosen sources. For example, the CCC “weave[s] together an ideologically diverse political” spectrum.11 From the historiography, people might discover a bigger of an issue during that period; therefore, people can understand a true detail of history rather than a myth that never existed in this world. Moreover, Maher’s book depicts “how CCC landscaped transformed conservation during the Great Depression” which helped to blossom modern environmentalism.12 Many sources are records that restrict people from studying in depth of history; historiography relieves this issue for people.

Two criticisms of this book can be found in “American Historical Review” by Matthew Klingle of Bowdoin College and “The Historian” by Michael B. Smith of Ithaca College. Klingle praises Maher for offering “a rich and complex history of how Americans became green” and goes into summarizing the book.13 Describing the era after the termination of the CCC, he states that the corps’ legacy reminded contemporary environmentalists of American innovation and popular ways managing resources and strengthening community and economy continuously. Klingle summarizes the book, while Smith dived under the surface. Maher argues that the CCC and politics shifted from utilitarian and Progressive conservation ideology to post-World War II environmentalism. Not only has Maher helped historians understand the corps and evolution of environmental ideology but the success of the New Deal. However, Smith only criticism was “relative paucity of voices from these constituencies.”14 The strength of the book from a student’s point of view would be different. Throughout his book, Maher backs all his statements and details by sources from records to letters. Furthermore, he places graphs, statistics, maps, and pictures to enhance the reader’s understanding. Despite the book’s ability to enlighten readers, it still poses some weaknesses. His narration lacks robust life which he conveys little sense toward the places he describes. Although his writing bores a few, his facts and data drives readers learn and more about the CCC and the New Deal.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression allowed the experiments and new ideologies socially, economically, and politically. Americans saw a shift from conservatism to liberalism, called New Deal Liberalism, which Roosevelt was under fire from. Throughout the New Deal, the federal government increased involvement among the American people. Without the Depression era, America would not experience benefits like the CCC. Which modernized conservation, Roosevelt formulated ideas about Boy Scouts, Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of United States Forest Service , and Progressive Conservation into his local conservation then in his CCC. Like before, the corps enforced a massive work force and effort on a national level; yet there were conservation agencies at state and local levels before. The corps influenced economically and socially between classes where the knowledge of a rich elite conservationist was no different from CCC labor; therefore, “the CCC program was extremely popular both with liberal working-class families… and with conservative upper-class business owners.”15 As the CCC became more and more successful, the American public saw the corps as a form of moral support. The corps supported immigrants yet segregated African Americans and Native Americans for ease of tension. Finally, the CCC transformed the meaning of conservation. The New Deal’s programs not only morphed the 1930s but it impacted the future.

Today, Americans embrace the improvements and benefits of the New Deal. When Congress terminated the CCC, the corps influenced its work in the field of conservation. The roots of environmentalism came from the CCC where the corps “shaped, was shaped by, the shifting political terrain of postwar America.”16 Therefore, the movements that followed the CCC continue today; environmentalism and debates about the definition of conservation still prevail. New Deal permanent programs still aid the poor and elderly yet some programs like social security should place regulation for allowing only poor retired Americans to receive this income. Remnants of the corps are still seen in local, state, and national government through their agencies.

Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps: The Roots of the American Environmental Movement depicts a crystal clear picture of the CCC. Readers learn of the origins from which “green” came. From the majority’s point of view, Roosevelt was thought as a reformer of the new, not a conservationist formulating from other’s ideas which this book explains and describes his conservation and philosophy. People never thought the corps left behind a lingering impact on conservation movement that transformed into modern environmental movement. Maher emphasized the roots of modern environmentalism which he urges readers to follow the path of the CCC, supporting young Americans working in the natural environment.



1: Maher, Neil M. Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps the Roots of American Environmental Movement. New York. Oxford Press, Inc., 2008. 11.
2: Maher, Neil M. 4.
3: Maher, Neil M. 8.
4: Maher, Neil M. 26.
5: Maher, Neil M. 44
6: Maher, Neil M. 64.
7: Maher, Neil M. 136.
8: Maher, Neil M. 151.
9: Maher, Neil M. 161.
10: Maher, Neil M. 168.
11: Maher, Neil M. 192.
12: Maher, Neil M. 11.
13: Maher, Neil M. 82.
14: Maher, Neil M. 226.
15: Smith, Michael. “Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps the Roots of American Environmental Movement. By Neil M. Maher. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).” Historian. 72.1 (2010): 180-181. Print. Maher, Neil M. Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps the Roots of American Environmental Movement. New York. Oxford Press, Inc., 2008.
16: Maher, Neil M.226.

Student Bio

John Law was born in Columbus, Ohio. He favors history and science academically while he loves to play the piano, trombone, and golf. Someday, he hopes to visit all of Europe and create an invention of his own.


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