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THE CCC California Conservation Corps: low pay, hard work; Fighting fires and building a future

By Leon LindsayStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 25, 1983

Sacramento, Calif.

Like Snow White's Seven Dwarfs, members of the California Conservation Corps ''work, work, work the whole day through.'' And like Snow White, thousands of the state's residents - beset for the past two winters by flooding, landslides, and shore erosion - are glad the men and women of the CCC are available.

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The blue hard hats of ''the C's,'' as they call themselves, have become a familiar and welcome sight. In addition to their usual conservation, energy, park, and other community work, the corps members, numbering some 2,000, have put in many 12-hour days (including night shifts) sandbagging and shoring up hillsides.

In the spring and summer of 1981, the C's took on the infamous Medfly (the Mediterranian fruit fly), which threatened to destroy the fruits and vegetables that California grows for the nation.

In these days of ''computer literacy'' and video games, the 18- to 23 -year-old members of the CCC would rather wield an ax on a fireline than manipulate a computer-game ''joy stick.'' They take pride in building a park trail or a stone wall; computer programming can wait.

The CCC takes more than its name from the Civilian Conservation Corps, which in the 1930s took 4 million Americans out of depression bread lines and put them to work on public projects. Life in the old CCC was much like life in the Army, and that's true of the California corps today.

Enrollees are promised ''hard work, low pay, and miserable conditions.'' But those who endure the rigorous discipline, demanding fitness program, and unremitting work schedule get a good deal more out of it, as many of them are eager to tell a visitor.

Officials of more than 35 other states, the sponsors of a bill in Congress to establish an ''American Youth Corps,'' and dozens of journalists have come to California or written to CCC officials, seeking to find out why this youth program has succeeded while many others have failed. Invariably, they have found corps members themselves the most eloquent witnesses for that success.

But the story of the California Conservation Corps is more than the sum of its members' experiences.

John E. (Jack) Dugan, a retired US Army colonel who was once a New York City policeman, became chief deputy director of the CCC when it was organized in 1976 , and was appointed director in 1981. He recently resigned to join the staff of California Attorney General John Van de Kamp.

Gov. George Deukmejian has named Robert J. Shelbe, executive director of the California YMCA's Model Legislature and Court since 1972, to replace Mr. Dugan.

Mr. Shelbe, who was scheduled to assume his new post April 25, said in a telephone interview that he feels the CCC ''provides vital services to the state'' and will expand in coming years.

''I feel very good about the CCC and how it has been managed,'' he added. ''I have no preset designs for change. As we discover ways to improve the organization, we will do it.''

In an interview prior to the naming of his successor, Dugan said he was ''proud that the CCC has been reasonably successful in developing a value system that gets to 18- and 19-year-olds.

''In the C's, work is not a burden, but an accomplishment,'' he asserts. ''We tell the youths, 'You are what you do.'

''It's shocking how much they want to relate to a little success - to something that gives a touch of pride and self-worth.''

Dugan is not just referring to school dropouts and young people from urban slums. Staff members say one reason the CCC has succeeded is that it does not ''target'' special groups for entry. Many young people who join are high school graduates from middle-class homes who have been excellent students, athletes, and even leaders. Some have had a year or two of college or have worked in white-collar jobs.

''You don't have to be a loser to get in,'' Dugan says. However, there are ''some pretty tough kids in the CCC.''