The Return of the Tree Army

Perkins Memorial Tower

Built by Civilian Conservation Corps workers between 1932 and 1934, the Perkins Memorial Tower (named for the first president of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission) in Bear Mountain State Park provides views of four states and Manhattan. (Photo by Greg Miller)

The Civilian Conservation Corps transformed the Hudson Valley. Would a new CCC have the same impact?

When Canopus Lake freezes, Fahnestock State Park transforms into a winter wonderland. Trails for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing appear, including one that glides across the lake, with a brief sojourn to a part of the shore that is otherwise difficult to reach.

“We call it ‘The CCC Loop,’ ” said Evan Thompson, the manager of Hudson Highlands State Park, which includes Fahnestock, as we walked along the shore this past summer.

Along the trail, stone foundations visible in the grass are all that remains of a camp that nearly a century ago housed members of the Civilian Conservation Corps. They lived at camps in the Highlands and thousands of other locations across the country to participate in a federal program designed to pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression.

The legacy of the CCC, which was part of Dutchess County native Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, can be found throughout the 14,086 acres of Fahnestock, which covers part of Putnam and Dutchess counties, and whose facilities were mostly built by its participants, Thompson said. Their handiwork includes the picnic pavilion at Pelton Pond, three comfort stations, campgrounds, the old water treatment plant and the original park offices located along the Taconic State Parkway (now used by the New York Department of Transportation).

Even Canopus Lake wouldn’t exist without the CCC. When the workers arrived, it was a wetlands. The corps built a dam that created the lake and then constructed Route 301 on top of the dam. The corps also built the dams that created Stillwater Lake, John Allen Pond and Beaver Pond.

pavilion at pelton pond

The pavilion at Pelton Pond in Fahnestock State Park was built by CCC workers. (Photo by B. Cronin)

There were ambitious plans for more campgrounds and a bobsled run, but the program was phased out in the early 1940s at the start of World War II.

Over nine years, the CCC employed more than 3.5 million people at 4,500 camps across the country (including 220,000 workers and 208 camps in New York state).They planted 3 billion trees, built 125,000 miles of road and 13,000 miles of trails, put out forest fires, stocked lakes, protected farmland from erosion, re-vegetated 800,000 acres of open range and developed 800 state parks.

Nearly 90 years after the CCC was founded in 1933, President Joe Biden has proposed reviving the program with a new focus, a new mission and a (slightly) new name.

A transformed land

The Civilian Conservation Corps was a national program but its roots were in Dutchess County. Growing up on his family’s estate in Hyde Park, Roosevelt fell in love with nature: He climbed trees, catalogued birds and rode his horse to Beacon to take the ferry to Newburgh (his mother’s hometown).

In his early 30s, FDR would begin the reforestation and conservation of his family’s estate, which had suffered years of neglect. In 1911, he told foresters at Syracuse University that he hoped that, in a century, his grandchildren would be able to grow corn there.

Years before he was elected governor of New York, Roosevelt became chair of the Boy Scout Foundation of Greater New York and introduced sustainable forestry practices and other conservation efforts that he was practicing at Hyde Park to the scouts’ activities. Yet as much as he valued scouting as a way to introduce city boys to the countryside, he was bothered by the lack of outdoor recreational facilities. Even though 6,000 scouts camped at Bear Mountain in the summer of 1922, nearly 14,000 more from New York City could not for lack of room.

Experiences such as these began to link the causes — conservation and outdoor recreation — in Roosevelt’s mind. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Gov. Roosevelt created a state program based on the scouting camps staffed by out-of-work New Yorkers instead of 10-year-olds.

The Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) provided food, shelter and clothing to 10,000 residents who, over the next several years, planted trees and cleared deadwood throughout the state. When he became president, Roosevelt expanded the concept of TERA to create the Civilian Conservation Corps

trying on new CCC uniform 1939

On a February day in 1939 in Washington, D.C., Robert Fechner (left), then director of the Civilian Conservation Corps, inspected a new uniform created for its workers. (Library of Congress)

The CCC was sometimes referred to as “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” or “The Soil Soldiers,” although some men who took part joked that CCC stood for “Colossal College of Calluses.” The first camps were focused on planting trees to alleviate the “timber famine” caused by excessive deforestation but soon began fighting tree diseases such as Dutch elm and white pine blister rust, and invasive species like bark beetles and Gypsy moths.

As the Depression wore on, it had the effect of sparking a hunger for the outdoors, which was cheap entertainment for the unemployed and underemployed. In response, the CCC began to build trails and dams and expand the size of parks. In addition to its work at Fahnestock, the CCC built six lakes at Harriman State Park and the stone Perkins Memorial Tower at the summit of Bear Mountain.

The CCC camp at Bear Mountain was the first outpost to experiment with a continuing education program in which corps members were trained for careers in forestry and wildlife management. Bear Mountain hosted another anomaly: The only CCC camp in the country for women. Eleanor Roosevelt urged her husband to allow women to take part in the conservation and forestry training, but the camp at Bear Mountain focused on domestic skills.

eleanor roosevelt visit

Eleanor Roosevelt is introduced in 1933 at a Camp TERA meeting at Bear Mountain. (National Archives)

Although the CCC charter forbade the exclusion of members because of race, African American and Native American workers found it harder to gain entry. When they did, they found themselves in segregated, substandard, secluded camps.

What would a more just, equitable and inclusive CCC have been able to accomplish? We may soon find out.

A new New Deal

A week after taking office, President Biden — who was a toddler when Roosevelt died in 1945 — issued an executive order that listed initiatives his administration would undertake to address global warming, including what he called the Civilian Climate Corps.

In July, Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, proposed a framework that is part of the $3.5 trillion social spending bill now under debate in the House. It calls for $30 billion to employ 1.5 million people over five years to work on projects that reduce carbon emissions and improve our ability to withstand climate change’s impact.

While participants in Roosevelt’s CCC were often assigned to distant camps, the new CCC would allow many workers to remain near their own homes. It would be open to all, with an emphasis on residents in underserved communities, veterans and the formerly incarcerated. Proponents are also pushing for a minimum wage of $15 an hour, health care benefits and access to training that would lead to long-term, unionized jobs.

The original CCC was so popular in its heyday — a 1939 Gallup poll found that 84 percent of Americans approved — that an official in FDR’s Democratic administration quipped that it was the “one thing in these troubled times of which not even Republicans can complain.”

That’s not so true today, with the CCC proposal failing to draw bipartisan support. Some Republicans have argued that private businesses that are having problems finding employees should not have to compete with a robust government program paying relatively high wages. Rep. Tom McClintock of California dismissed the proposal as creating an army of “young climate pioneers in every neighborhood to report on who is watering their lawn, whose fireplace is smoking, who is spreading forbidden climate disinformation.”

At the same time, grassroots organizations such as The Sunrise Movement and Outdoor Promise provide hints of the potential impact of a well-funded national program like a Civilian Climate Corps.

The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate initiative (you must be younger than 35 to join) that has outlets in Poughkeepsie and Westchester County, is lobbying hard for the new CCC. The Westchester chapter was formed last summer; a representative, Nora Lowe, said it provides an outlet for a generation that one survey found is experiencing high anxiety about the climate crisis it will inherit.

“There’s a lot of energy and passion in the climate movement and sometimes people don’t know where to direct it,” Lowe said. “Having a reputable government program [such as CCC] would be a great way to harness that energy.”

On its website, The Sunrise Movement asks visitors to “imagine a world where millions of people, recent high school graduates and middle-aged alike, could work on projects protecting communities from sea-level rise, taking care of the elderly, distributing fresh produce in food deserts, restoring wetlands and rebuilding after climate disasters, while getting paid a living wage, having access to health care, and getting apprenticed to continue their career, instead of working a shitty job at Amazon making Jeff Bezos richer.”

One of the Westchester chapter’s ongoing volunteer projects is to remove invasive species from local parks, including knotweed, mile-a-minute, Japanese barberry and mugwort. It’s slow work that can only be done by hand, and Lowe said that CCC workers could have a huge impact.

“You realize that the world is fungible.”

Across the river in Newburgh, Ronald Zorrilla is also working to empower a generation of climate advocates. As a Dominican kid growing up in Queens, Zorrilla didn’t have much access to the outdoors until a scholarship from the Queens Hall of Science allowed him to spend a week at a state Department of Environmental Conservation camp when he was 13. That led him to found the nonprofit group Outdoor Promise when he was in college to give city kids access to the outdoors, as Roosevelt had done.

Zorrilla also saw something else: When it came to the climate crisis, children who shared his background were being left out of the conversation.

“To leave the growing minority — and soon to be majority — of people out, we’re doing our whole world a disservice,” he said. “It’s going to take all hands on deck.”

Ronald Zorrilla

Ronald Zorrilla directs Outdoor Promise, a program based in Newburgh that is similar to what has been envisioned for a Civilian Climate Corps. (Photo provided)

Outdoor Promise fellowships follow a similar model to that envisioned for the new CCC. Through a grant, the nonprofit employs four young women from Newburgh who are working on a community initiative to restore the city’s urban trees, in response to studies that show that green spaces in cities can lower summer temperatures, prevent flooding and provide cleaner air — along with the mental health benefits of natural spaces. Newburgh has lost thousands of trees over the past few decades, and previous efforts to replace them did not go well.

“The city is planting 15 to 20 trees every year, but most of them die because nobody waters them,” Zorrilla explained. “Or they plant them where people don’t want them. So 75 percent of the fellowship is community engagement.”

To that end, the Outdoor Promise fellows have been asking the people of Newburgh what they want. That’s easier to do when the people asking the questions are locals. “People like us bring some historic barriers down,” Zorrilla said. “And we find out tons of reasons why people don’t want trees, reasons you would never think of if you didn’t talk to people.”

Among those reasons: People don’t want to rake leaves, they don’t want branches to fall on their car, they don’t want someone hiding behind them, and they worry that many years down the road, when the roots start breaking through the sidewalks, the city won’t fix them. But the fellows also identified residents who would love trees and are happy to put in the work taking care of them.

Outdoor Promise fellows work with Newburgh residents to care for new trees.

Outdoor Promise fellows work with Newburgh residents to care for new trees. (Photo provided)

Kathryn McKenzie, one of the fellows, grew up in Newburgh and attended college in New York City to become a dancer. She had already been missing the Hudson Valley when COVID struck and the dance theaters closed. She returned to Newburgh to find that her father had planted a vegetable garden in their backyard.

Because her father worked nights for the MTA, McKenzie soon became the chief gardener. She grew so much food she had to give some to her neighbors. She discovered that both her parents had farmed in their native Jamaica, her mother in the countryside and her father as part of a family farm that she had not known existed.

McKenzie’s experience isn’t unusual in Newburgh’s immigrant community, Zorrilla said. Many lived on farms and possess a deep affinity for nature, not to mention generations of knowledge. “A lot of these people are still connected to the land, so if we could give them an outlet here, we can get them engaged,” he said.

Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie (Photo provided)

McKenzie’s experience led her to the Sanctuary Healing Garden at Newburgh’s Crystal Lake, where she was introduced to Outdoor Promise.

She said learning how many trees Newburgh once had lit a fire. “It’s urgent — and it’s only going to become even more urgent — that we have more green infrastructure in place to protect us,” she said. “We can’t do it later, because the trees aren’t going to be big enough.”

When the tree survey is done, McKenzie said the people she’s spoken with in the community have already tipped her off as to what should be tackled next: garbage.

The city does not put out adequate public trash cans, citing their cost. “The solution can’t be to do nothing,” said McKenzie, noting that it falls to nonprofits and organizations such as Safe Harbors of the Hudson and Melanin Unchained to host community cleanups, doing the work that the city won’t.

These types of projects could be undertaken by the new CCC, which would not only build infrastructure to combat the climate crisis but give younger generations a reason not to despair, Zorrilla said. “They’ve expanded their network, they’ve spoken at city council meetings — all of this stuff empowers you and you realize that the world is fungible,” he said. “You can push onto it.”

3 thoughts on “The Return of the Tree Army

  1. Brian PJ Cronin, yet again, provided your readers with an excellent report on an innovative program. To remember all that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) did for our region with respect to land preservation and infrastructure transformation was inspiring. And to learn more about the proposed incarnation of the pro-gram as the Civilian Climate Corps was hopeful.

    A nonprofit I created with my husband, Jason Angell, the Ecological Citizen’s Project, has worked with the Philipstown Climate Smart Community Task Force since its inception in 2017 and reached hundreds of Philipstown neighbors to spread information on the climate emergency and the need to act collectively. In our published greenhouse gas inventory report, Sink, Store, Reduce, Offset, we called for the creation of a Philipstown CCC.

    After reading Cronin’s article, we hope our neighbors, elected officials and civic and community organization leaders see the promise in providing good-paying jobs to local residents who want to be a part of the work of ecological repair. And we hope our town’s younger residents recognize that it can give them “a reason not to despair” and hope that they, too, could be planting, gardening, building or protecting, rather than “working a shitty job at Amazon making Jeff Bezos richer,” as the Sunrise Movement put it.
    Let’s keep Philipstown an environmental leader, start a local CCC and become a model for our neighboring towns and villages.

  2. I love seeing CCC work throughout the U.S. It’s amazing and enduring and beautiful. [via Facebook]

  3. My dad was with the CCC in Tennessee. I have the steamer trunk he used that has an autographed picture of Shirley Temple in it.