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Dirty jobs: the key to America's economic and environmental renewal

A revival of the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps would create jobs, restore our soil and water to health, and keep climate change in check.

By Steven Apfelbaum / September 20, 2010

Brodhead, Wis.

Our economy remains deeply troubled, with unacceptably high levels of unemployment. Lack of conservation and bad agricultural practices have harmed America’s soils and water, producing, for example, the Gulf Dead Zone, which has grown to nearly the size of Massachusetts. Evidence of the impact of global warming grows daily.

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These are serious, daunting challenges, but there is an ambitious policy plan that could directly address all of them, simultaneously: a new Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

A New-Deal triumph

The original CCC was one of President Roosevelt’s most popular New Deal programs, providing some 3 million jobs. The corps planted more than 2 billion trees and created hundreds of parks nationwide, while putting young, largely unskilled people back to work.

We need a similar conservation-based jobs package right now, which would create jobs for millions of workers who could help restore and replenish the health of America’s natural resources.

Our company, Applied Ecological Services, Inc., has experienced first-hand the great interest in conservation and restoration-related jobs, through the thousands of resumes we receive from young people, those who have retooled and are on a second career track, or the many people who simply have given up on the rat race and seek meaningful work in nurturing our environment. Clearly, there’s an immense opportunity to harness this interest.

First, our soil and water need to be restored to health. Hundreds of millions of acres of our nation are now under siege by invasive plant species. They have taken over our woodlands, preventing the regeneration of valuable trees, shrubs, and understory plants, and destabilizing our soils, which erode into waterways, rivers, lakes, wetlands, and coastal estuaries. A new CCC could be put to work removing invasive species to restore vegetation systems, soils and prevent further water quality damage.

Second, our agricultural practices have depleted soil organic matter, according to the US Department of Agriculture, and with this depletion the water-holding capacity of soil collapses, causing compaction and erosion. This results in more stormwater runoff, less ground water recharge, and increased flooding. As the soil erodes, the seeds, roots, tubers, rhizomes, and other propagules of native wildflowers and grasses – structures that function to hold the soils in place – are diminished. It’s a vicious cycle.

Soil-saving, sustainable agricultural practices and other land management strategies exist, but they need to be implemented. A new CCC could help by regrowing soil organic matter and, again, improving both soil and water resources.