The shovel-ready lessons of the New Deal

Action speaks!
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 22, 2009

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CALLING FOR A NEW CORPS Maher.

Action Speaks!, AS220's always-engaging panel discussion series, is back. "So soon?" you ask. Why, yes.

The series, heretofore a fall affair, is now running twice a year — in the spring and, as usual, when the leaves start to turn.

The double-down owes much to a $60,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant, which is also funding a beefed-up Web site and a national marketing campaign designed to get Action Speaks! programming on radio stations across the country.

The spring series will focus, in timely fashion, on the politics and psychology of economic failure. And panelists, like their predecessors, will build their discussions around underappreciated dates in history.

The first topic, to be pulled apart at a forum at AS220 on April 29 from 5:30 to 7 pm, is "1933: The Creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps," a New Deal program that sent thousands of unemployed men into the wild to plant trees and conserve soil.

One of the panelists is Neil Maher, a professor of environmental history at Rutgers-Newark and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, who wrote Nature's New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (2007).

The Phoenix, a media sponsor for Action Speaks!, conducted a Q&A with the good professor via e-mail in advance of the discussion, which will air on WRNI on May 3 at 8 pm. Below, an edited and condensed version:

YOU ARGUE IN YOUR BOOK THAT THE WORK OF THE CIVILIAN CONSERVATION CORPS (CCC) — PLANTING TREES, CONSERVING SOIL — HELPED TO BOLSTER AMERICAN ENVIRONMENTALISM. BUT YOU ALSO ARGUE THAT OPPOSITION TO THE CORPS PUSHED THE MOVEMENT FORWARD. WHAT WAS THE MAJOR CRITIQUE OF THE CORPS AND HOW DID THAT CRITIQUE HELP TO RESHAPE THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT?
During the later New Deal years, an increasing vocal contingent of Americans began criticizing some Corps conservation work on a variety of grounds. Some, like wilderness advocate Bob Marshall (founder of the Wilderness Society in 1935), criticized CCC road-building projects for destroying the wilderness quality of many national parks and national forests. Others, such as ecologist Aldo Leopold [argued] work such as the draining of swamps for mosquito control and the planting of non-indigenous trees in straight rows was ecologically unsound. This criticism, in the later New Deal years, sparked a national debate over the very meaning of conservation. Was conservation the conservation of natural resources (timber, soil, water) like the Progressives had believed [in the 1910s]? Or did conservation also include the conservation of human resources through increased access to outdoor recreation, which is what CCC work in national and state parks suggested. Or was conservation really about wilderness and ecology, as Marshall and Leopold argued.

YOU ARGUE THAT THE CORPS WORKED AS A POLITICAL TOOL TO PROMOTE THE NEW DEAL AND GET FDR RE-ELECTED. WHAT WAS THE POLITICAL VALUE OF THE CORPS AND IS THERE ANY ELEMENT OF THE NEW STIMULUS PACKAGE THAT WILL PACK THE SAME PUNCH?
FDR was extremely savvy about using the CCC to his political advantage. The president realized, early on, that these Corps camps greatly helped the economies of local communities nearby.He would reward political allies of the New Deal by placing camps in their districts, and he would punish opponents of the New Deal by denying camps in their districts.

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