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Know the West

A new Conservation Corps for the climate

What it means to contribute to the future of a place.

Wearing leather gloves caked dry with mud, I grasped a pickax and began to hack. Beyond the occasional ring of metal striking mineral, there was no sound where I stood, on a rough-hewn alpine trail in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, under the breezeless blue of a summer sky. I paused, taking in my broken, unfinished line of dirt, then watched the rest of my crew move upward under spruce trees, away from the objects of our recent lunchtime adoration: wild raspberries, peanut butter and jelly, coveted 10-minute naps. By day’s end, we’d be spent, having cut a dozen yards of trail with miles more to go.

 

At 18, I had come to these mountains in response to the Montana Conservation Corps’ call to “find your place.” With family scattered across a 2,000-some-mile swath of the U.S. and the West Indian state of Maharashtra, I approached the corps hoping to anchor myself in this particular area. I wanted a visceral connection to these gentle, sloping foothills and granite peaks, which I would wrangle, in my mind, into some idea of home.

But “home” is a fickle concept, swiftly muddled when projected onto an actual, climate change-addled landscape. One week, my crew cleared underbrush to lessen the impact of future forest fires, working from a basecamp of a half-burnt forest floor encircled by fallen, scorched logs. It reminded me that no matter what sliver of the Earth I call home, an unstable climate suspends any illusion of continuity in that place.

But “home” is a fickle concept, swiftly muddled when projected onto an actual, climate change-addled landscape.

The Montana Conservation Corps is a reincarnation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. In late July, Congress convened a subcommittee on another potential reinvention of the CCC: the Climate Conservation Corps. Nestled within President Joe Biden’s January executive order on the climate crisis and his American Jobs Plan in March, the corps would expand a number of existing AmeriCorps programs, including Montana’s, to create a hybrid program focused on conservation and climate change mitigation.

By creating jobs in clean energy and climate resiliency, the new CCC would revive the old CCC’s multibillion-dollar public relief program, formed during the Great Depression in 1933. In its early iterations, the CCC plucked young poor men from Eastern cities and shipped them to the forests of the West. Many had never swung an ax. The program sprang from the economic desperation that plagued countless American families at the time; participants earned $30 per month and were required to mail $25 home to their families, many of whom subsisted on government relief.

FDR’s immediate goal was to get 250,000 men to camps across the United States within four months. This was a task of war-sized proportions. “Never in peacetime had such a mass of men been recruited,” wrote CCC alum Robert Egan, in a 1983 article titled “Remembering the CCC: City Boys in the Woods.” The specter of war, and the American investment in war, appear throughout the archival materials that document the CCC’s nine-year existence. “CCC soldiers,” or the “forest army,” as enrollees were called, fought wildfires, planted trees and built trails, bridges and campground structures.

In many ways, the CCC of the 1930s set out to rescue what the U.S. then deemed two of its most precious resources: land and young men. As the Great Depression hollowed out the economy, there were fears that the latter had become listless and disaffected. When the program died, it was because resources were diverted to a new battlefront: World War II.

While the original CCC was lauded, receiving broad bipartisan support in Congress, it served an exclusive group of Americans: Most enrollees were young and white, and the relatively few Black and Indigenous corps members — and the veterans and women — were segregated from their fellows. The camps were separate and not equal: The corps proposed monthly wages of $5 per month in the women’s camps, compared to the men’s $30. Still, some non-citizens enrolled, and some camps celebrated “I Am An American Day” to honor newly naturalized citizens. In 1942, as the program came to a close, the government retooled abandoned CCC camps across the West, from Idaho to Montana, into Japanese American internment camps.

The CCC was born out of, and conformed to, the structural inequities inherent in the federal government at the time. These structures still persist, albeit often in more subtle ways — today, national parks see mostly white visitors, for example, and environmental groups still have a diversity problem — and they will inevitably inform the CCC’s next iteration. Perhaps to remedy this, in July, dozens of lawmakers sent a letter to congressional leaders supporting a new CCC that prioritizes investment in “environmental justice communities.” The authors don’t define this term but instead point to collaboration with tribal members, immigrants, refugees, people granted asylum, veterans, out-of-school or out-of-work youth and the formerly incarcerated.

Corps members willing to brave the intensifying climate crisis could do so because they care about softening its blows and because it’s a solid job.

It remains to be seen whether focusing on “environmental justice communities” will result in a more diverse and equitable corps, or if the term is an incoherent label that few claim as their own. Whatever the case, it’s possible to design a new CCC that attracts a multiracial workforce, one that’s generously compensated — not by a volunteer’s sense of pride, certificates or other intangible promises. Corps members willing to brave the intensifying climate crisis could do so because they care about softening its blows and because it’s a solid job.

During my time with the Montana Conservation Corps, I earned just $270 in four weeks; I was pursuing the program’s promise that I’d find my place rather than a paycheck. On some of those long summer afternoons with my crew, several miles up a winding, unfinished trail, I considered whether my actions — me and my ax, working in the wilderness — were in fact about me finding my place. Up there, thousands of feet above sea level, I found a series of fleeting and tangible sensations: sinking my knees into tawny, fragrant soil; arching my neck toward wildflowers; swatting horseflies with more vigor than I swung my tools.

I don’t recall a summer spent building a relationship with the land. I remember arguments about the merits of Lana Del Rey’s woozy ballads, which dominated the airwaves that summer, and conversations with my nonbinary, polyamorous crew leader about the mechanics of open relationships and the subtle misogyny of calling women “chicks.” The landscape’s sweeping vistas were merely a backdrop to these scenes. In the end, I didn’t find my place. But what I did find was enough: the seed of a realization that not having a romantic attachment to this stretch of land could coexist, beautifully, with a real resolve to care for it.

Late one afternoon, my crew and I traversed the ground we’d broken over the past few days. Within 10 minutes, we’d reached the end of our fresh-cut trail and stepped onto the section others had carved in previous years. I grasped, then, the size of our enterprise, decades in the making, and the work it would require in the years to come. This changing landscape wasn’t my home, but what we did here — the trail-building, the brush-clearing, the learned resolve — might ensure some semblance of one for others, in a future world. As I fell into step with my crew, my eyes traced the trail, its crooks and contours, on the long walk down.    

Surya Milner is a former editorial intern at High Country News. She is currently based in Bozeman, Montana.

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