Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Timely Resurrection

It is impossible to turn around in Durham, North Carolina where I live without admiring the 1930s handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) including bridges, roads and trails through Duke Forest and the Adirondack-like forestry school constructed in the G.W. Hill Demonstration Forest.

But Durham’s new Trees Across Durham multi-agency attempt to re-jumpstart reforestation needs only to look back 25 years or so for another related idea whose time may have finally come, the Durham Service Corps.

In the late 1920s, Durham leaders had facilitated these “teaching” forests, now totaling nearly 10,000 acres taken together.  One is at Duke University and another is used by the forestry school established in 1929 at North Carolina State University a few years before President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the CCC in 1933, a month after his inauguration.

As so well documented by Dr. Neil M. Maher in his book entitled Nature’s New Deal, F.D.R. created the program by fusing together Progressive Era conservation with his experience as a Boy Scout executive seeing the transformative effects of nature on young minds.

Over a nine year period, the CCC transformed the lives of 3 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 by putting them to work for six month stints (enrollees could re-enlist up to four times) in 5,000 camps spread across the United States, 30 in North Carolina and several in Durham.

In fact, North Carolina was the first to fill its initial quotas of 7,650 for the CCC, but enrollees were spread around to mix people of different backgrounds, rural and urban, east and west, north and south. The program was genius, and included physical education and numerous other courses before and after work.

The Corps is probably best known for planting 2.3 billion trees, 15 million in North Carolina alone.  According to Dr. Maher, this was about 12 for every Depression Era American.  Similar to where Duke Forest was created, most were planted on 2.5 million acres of “previously barren, denuded, or unproductive land.”

Mahler notes that “this represents about half of the trees ever planted in U.S. history.”

It may be that part of F.D.R.’s idea for Boy Scout conservation camps came from those who had earlier proposed camping as a way to shape public spirited young Americans such as the League of Woodcraft Indians or the Sons of Daniel Boone.

Or maybe he took part of the inspiration for the CCC from a speech Harvard philosopher and psychologist William James gave while a visiting professor at Stanford in 1906 then later published as an essay in 1910.

I’ve never read the speech but in the essay that followed in 1910, James proposed replacing military conscription with a requirement that all youths serve a certain number of years as an army in nature.

The CCC ended the year after America’s entry into WWII, but there, too, it had an impact having trained millions of soldiers in valuable skills.  Many efforts have been made to replicate the CCC after the war.  In 1967, the late Professor John Salmond wrote its definitive history while completing his doctorate while studying in Durham at Duke.

In 1984 Durham also became home to the The Forest History Society and its incredible archives and historical photographs. 

While Durham was jumpstarting its official community destination marketing organization in 1989, many of the same officials including then mayor Wib Gulley, then-city council member Sandy Ogburn and then chancellor at North Carolina Central University, the late Dr. LeRoy T. Walker, were helping to launch the Durham Service Corps.

Durham was one of 10 communities piloting this CCC-adaptation at the local level based on the findings of a think tank, and later written up in a 1992 Wall Street Journal article.  Tom White, then an executive with the Durham Chamber and later Commissioner Ellen Reckow also played roles.

All befriended me as I arrived in Durham to head up visitor centric cultural and economic development, a career from which I am now retired.

The program was passionately led by Ann Baker Easley.  Soon after she was joined by Harry Bruell as associate director and work project coordinator and they worked under a board co-chaired by Gulley and Walker.

The Durham Service Corps put young, disadvantaged young people to work on projects such as:

  • Clearing urban streams and storm runoff channels in partnership with the City.
  • Painting the inside of City Water plants.
  • Building compost bins out of used pallets
  • Cleaning up the old Durham Athletic Park after Bulls games
  • Restoring buildings at a state historic site
  • Building trails at a state forest
  • Building a shed at the Museum of Life & Science
  • Mowing the lawns of schools
  • Mentoring kids at the juvenile detention center
  • Helping at Special Olympics games
  • Putting bar codes on all trash cans

Ann and Harry moved on to spend careers in similar programs.  Ann founded or helped start 7 different youth and service corps programs around the nation before founding and heading both the Youth Corps Association in her native Colorado and the Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado.  She also helped HistoriCorps get off the ground.

Harry worked for the national CorpsNetwork and now heads up the best practice Southwest Conservation Corps.  Wib went on to several terms in the State Senate and he and Sandy helped get light rail transit underway.  Dr. Walker went on to head the United States Olympic Committee.

Unfortunately, the Durham Service Corps then lost steam and folded a few years later as movements so often do when successors don’t seem to have the same passion or ability to tell the story of an organization.

Far too many communities also get caught up in the squirrel cage process of jumping from program to program without ensuring sufficient resources, energy, passion and sustainable capacity for those they already have.

Reincarnating or adapting a Durham Service Corps in tandem with Trees Across Durham planting and Keep Durham Beautiful projects etc. is well worth considering in light of a 2011 study on the effect of nature-related service corps by researchers at Texas A&M Univerity.

The study compared populations of participants and non-participants, both male and female with a mean age of 21, including those no longer in school and those continuing in school, ranging from those short of a high school degree to college graduates.

Results showed statistically significant increases for participants over non-participants related to community engagement, attitude toward public lands, environmental activism, teamwork, leadership and self-responsibility.  Another study focused on an urban service corps and documented similar results.

The CCC of the 1930s lives on nationally through the Americorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps.)  There are five campuses instead of camps, one serving each region of the country.  Enrollment is for ten months vs. six.

Today’s CCC members still receive room and board, as well as uniforms and training, but they receive a living allowance of $4,000 for the ten months rather than a salary of $30 per month in the 1930s with $25 sent home to family.  Today the service requirement is 1,700 hours of community service and 80 hours of independent service.

There is also a $5,550 tuition award when all is said and done.

Many communities have service corps but they start at age 16.  Some even have middle school programs.  They all focus on the lessons that can be learned from nature, including urban forest.

Overall, service corps across the nation last year:

  • planted well over 1 million trees,
  • constructed, restored and maintained 95,337 miles of trails,
  • constructed 104,952 feet of boardwalks, footbridges and walkways,
  • removed or eradicated 195,333 acres of invasive plants and
  • created 883 community gardens.

It seems like an idea worth revisiting in Durham as well.  Maybe Harry and Ann would be willing to advise us on how to get back on track along with utilizing resources available from The CorpsNetwork.

But as also applies to the latest urban forestry initiative, only if we make it sustainable this time.

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