Whitesburg KY

Dear SOAR: Our region needs a new CCC – now

Next Monday morning in Pikeville (Dec. 9), Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers will convene the SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) summit they have organized hoping to finding new solutions to the same problems eastern Kentucky has been facing since at least the 1920’s, chiefly high unemployment brought on by the ups and downs of the coal industry.

While tougher federal environmental regulations, competition from cheap domestic natural gas, and resource depletion continue to make eastern Kentucky’s high quality coal too expensive to mine, Beshear and Rogers realize something must be done — and done quickly — to help compensate for the 6,000 well-paying coal mining jobs that have been lost here during the last three years or so.

After Beshear and Rogers call the summit to order, we hope they and the movers and shakers among the 1,100 or so other participants in attendance at the Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center will agree to work to revive at least one program from the past that could immediately bring much-needed jobs and improvements to region. Nearly five years ago in this space we pleaded with state and national leaders to consider bringing a better future to our region by bringing back a successful public work relief program that was started 80 years ago, the Civilian Conservation Corps. Following is an updated version or our original editorial that appeared in March 2009:

By the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the oath of office as president in 1933, the Great Depression was already in its third full year. The nation’s banking system had failed; its mines, mills and factories had largely fallen silent; and one of every four Americans was jobless. All over the country, young men who had grown up expecting to find places in the workforce (which was then still largely male) discovered that nobody was hiring. Millions of the jobless young were poorly educated and without skills. They faced a future of poverty and despair — much like the future faced by many of today’s young eastern Kentuckians, male and female alike, whose lack of hope, education, skills, and self-respect greases the skids that plummet them into dependence on drugs and welfare. Roosevelt acted fast. He didn’t believe in the dole, and within days he set up a temporary work-relief program that provided useful, paying jobs to millions of laid-off workers who desperately needed to be able to support their families. And in less than six weeks — 37 days from enactment to implementation — he had a program under way that was uniquely geared to meeting the needs of jobless young people while also spurring the restoration of forests and farmlands that had been stripped and eroded by the heedless timbering and plowing practices of the greed-driven past.

FDR called this new program the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and he was fully aware that the name had a double meaning. Civilians would do valuable conservation work — and learning to work together as part of a corps would also conserve civilians, turning them into productive members of a society that would soon need and appreciate them.

Although nominally under the direction of a civilian head, the CCC at the outset was actually under the direction of the Army — because the Army was the only branch of the federal government that knew how to rapidly organize and oversee the hundreds of new camps that would soon become home to thousands of enrollees. What started out as an expedient way to get the program up and running turned out to be an ideal model for the long run: semi-military camps where young people from impoverished families could count on getting three square meals a day, becoming physically fit, learning essential skills and taking education courses in return for working hard and putting up with the indignities of military life such as reveille, roll call, and chowing down at community tables.

Those indignities were a small price to pay for a chance at a whole new life, and from 1933 until 1942 that is what the CCC offered to the more than 3 million young Americans who served in its ranks. Official histories tend to emphasize the billions of trees they planted, the millions of eroded acres they reclaimed, the trails and shelters and fire roads they constructed in thousands of national and state parks, and the CCC’s many other tangible legacies. But just as important, if not more so, is the fact that you will never hear of a CCC veteran — and there are still a few of them among us — who didn’t consider his experience in “the C’s” to have been life-changing.

Without that experience, the vets often said, they couldn’t imagine what would have happened to them — and they spoke of their service to their country with tremendous pride. For many, it was followed by leadership roles in the armed forces during World War II — and as combat leaders they suffered disproportionately high casualties. For that we owe them a deep debt of gratitude.

Fast-forward to 2013. In eastern Kentucky and most of the rest of Central Appalachia, we have a serious crisis on our hands. With a slump in the coal industry that shows no signs of easy anytime soon, if ever, joblessness is rampant. In addition to the problems unemployed coal miners and their families face, thousands of young men and women are living in the region without much hope today — stuck in poverty, nothing to look forward to, no obvious reason to stay in school, not much chance of finding a job, dealing and doing drugs because that’s what their peers are mostly doing. Could a new CCC help? We’ll never know unless we try.

Plenty of regional projects that are still being planned or under way could be scaled up. To take just one example, the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative and the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team were cooperating four years ago in the launch of a demonstration project in Letcher County to reforest old strip mines — a project that could be replicated on the more than 700,000 acres of old mined lands in the Appalachian coalfields that have never been properly reclaimed. There’s a lot of talk these days about creating green jobs and sequestering carbon. Planting trees, CCC-style, does both.

Look around. National and state parks have been underfunded for 25 years, and they’re showing the stress from heavy wear and tear. There are thousands of shovel-ready improvements on administrators’ wish lists. Walk the 1,200-mile-long Appalachian Trail: you’ll see that many if not most of the shelters are in disrepair. Explore our hollows: streams need to be restored, back-road bridges rebuilt, trash picked up, the homes of the elderly weatherized — there’s more than enough work to be done. We just need the will.

Finally, this hard thought: Would you rather invest your hard-earned tax money in the $50,000 to $75,000 it takes to incarcerate a drug-buyer for a year — knowing that when he or she gets out, the odds of a repeat are high — or would you like to invest in seeing that person given a decent shot at a decent life through participation in a program that benefits everyone?

This isn’t a question of liberalism or conservatism, it’s a question about the future of our country.

And the answer? It’s time for a new CCC. Money needed to fund the program could come from the $2.5 billion in unspent funds in the federal Abandoned Mine Lands Trust.

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