CHICAGO — They built limestone aqueducts in the Dan Ryan Woods and dug out the Skokie Lagoons one shovel at a time. At Starved Rock State Park, they raised lodges, and along the I&M Canal, they extended dozens of bridges. They carved out trails and cleared campgrounds and planted billions of trees, and they did all of this as part of their time in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a widely popular New Deal program now being re-imagined for the 21st century.
In President Joe Biden’s January executive order aimed at addressing the climate crisis, there was a call for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps. The modern CCC would employ Americans “to conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate.”
The $2 trillion infrastructure plan introduced at the end of March included $10 billion for a corps. Multiple CCC-esque bills have also been introduced in Congress, including the Renew Conservation Corps Act by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, with a parallel bill from U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, both Illinois Democrats.
“I think Illinois is in a very special position here to help launch a program that could have a huge impact on people’s lives and on our infrastructure,” said Jerry Adelmann, president and CEO of the conservation nonprofit Openlands, which helped shape the Renew act. “We’re trying to build a big tent and get everybody under it.”
Illinois conservationists are working to create a program that they hope will find bipartisan support, like the original. For the Great Lakes region, a new corps could mean checking off a long list of items on advocates’ lists: more green space and infrastructure in cities, much-needed assistance to eroding shorelines, habitat restoration, reforestation of dwindling canopies — and new jobs.
And, advocates say, the timing seems right.
“A convergence, really, of intersecting challenges,” Adelmann said. “Climate, being one, racial justice being another, and then the economy, unemployment. These three things are coming together in powerful ways. Don’t they suggest that there should be a program?”
‘900 trees in a week’
Created in 1933 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Civilian Conservation Corps employed more than 3 million mostly young white men, offering a holistic education in conservation and requiring most of the earnings, usually about $30 a month, to be sent home to their families.
When some CCC alumni returned to an old corps site in 2000 to build a park, Ted Golema, then 82, of Lyons, recalled his earlier work as repetitious, but he was glad to have a job. “I must’ve planted 900 trees in a week,” he said. “But the most important thing was we got three meals a day and a paycheck. That was a godsend to the family.”