As we prepare to rebuild from the devastation wrought by the pandemic, we will need to summon solutions that match the magnitude of the moment.
One challenge we will have to address is the youth unemployment crisis. Americans under 30 years of age are out of work at a level not seen since the Great Depression. This crisis touches all demographics, but disproportionally affects young people of color, young Indigenous people and young rural people.
The good news is that we already have a strong foundation to build on.
Shortly after his inauguration in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to “conserve our natural resources, create future national wealth and prove of moral and spiritual value not only to those of you who are taking part, but to the rest of the country as well.”
Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” ultimately employed 3.4 million young men who planted 3 billion trees, created more than 700 state and local parks and constructed trails across the country.
The same opportunity lies before us today. Investments in restoration, recreation and resilience create good-paying jobs more quickly than many other alternatives because most of the funds go toward labor rather than materials.
By establishing a 21st-century CCC, leaders in Washington and St. Paul could put young Americans to work, restoring our natural places and restoring the state’s crumbling recreational infrastructure. To scale up quickly, we could build on an existing AmeriCorps program and we could have these young workers implement shovel-ready state, local and federal plans.
Minnesota’s five national parks have an estimated $21 million backlog of projects on the books. For state parks, it’s worse — the Department of Natural Resources estimates its deferred maintenance backlog at $370 million.
Minnesotans have enjoyed hopscotching across the stones placed by the original CCC almost 100 years ago at the headwaters of the Mississippi in Itasca State Park. Imagine the things a new brigade of young workers could build that our children would be able to share with their children.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency also currently has plans on the books to improve water quality across the state. The Minnesota River is one system that needs help. It is polluted by agricultural and urban runoff and carries unnaturally high levels of silt from erosion. This unfortunate combination harms our beloved Lake Pepin and the Mississippi River. Young workers could help address these issues, just as the original CCC restored sections of the Red River.
The DNR has identified nearly 350 at-risk species, including moose, tamarack pines and monarch butterflies, and it has created a detailed plan to help them recover. These young workers could assist these species’ recovery — particularly if a pending bipartisan House bill, called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, supporting the state plans were passed into law.
Time is of the essence. We need to lay the groundwork now so we can swiftly put young people to work restoring America’s natural treasures as soon as it is safe. A new CCC will not just restart the economy, it will increase our strength and resilience as a nation.
Brad Gausman is the executive director of Minnesota Conservation Federation. Collin O’Mara is the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.