For millions of Americans old enough to remember, the proposed new American Conservation Corps program passed by the US House this week by a solid 291-to- 102 vote conjures up vivid images from the 1930s. There they were, back then, the young persons of the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps -- the CCC -- marching forward in smart drill. Only instead of weapons, they carried shovels. Instead of military uniforms, they wore work clothes. And their mission was truly ''national'' in the best sense of the term -- planting trees, building bridges, constructing telephone lines, fighting forest fires.
The new CCC, although much smaller in scope, would do many of the same things undertaken by the original corps that was finally disbanded during WW II. It would put unemployed teenagers to work restoring parks and national monuments. Yet, the costs would be modest: $50 million for fiscal 1983, and $250 million annually thereafter through fiscal 1989. For that money, over 100,000 young people could be recruited annually, many of them working year-round, the remainder in summer work.
A revival of a CCC-type program is long overdue. California, with its innovative youth conservation program that has been in effect since 1976, has proven that such a venture yields benefits not only to participants but to society as a whole. By some estimates, the California program returns on the order of $1.20 in public services for every $1 spent by the state.
Fortunately, the proposed new federal program leaves substantial operating authority to the states and local governments. Thus, programs could by crafted to reflect regional and local needs, which could conceivably range from an urban parks program for the South Bronx to reforestation for Nebraska or Montana.
Legislation similar to the House plan is now before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The Reagan administration has so far opposed the program. Few persons could really fault the White House for rejecting obviously costly makework programs at a time of budget constraint.
But surely, such a modest new conservation corps plan as now voted by the House does not fit that category. Youth unemployment is at record levels. For minority youths, the problem is especially severe. And there are many public services that are badly needed -- from restoring deteriorating parks, to checking soil erosion througout the US Midwest.
Lawmakers, for their part, should ensure that such a program will be run with the efficiency that characterizes the California plan -- and, in the process, turns many a young person into a responsible adult.
The new American Conservation Corps program makes good economic sense. It deserves swift approval.