A national conservation corps could rescue many young men and women from the idleness now burdening their lives and America's future. The cost would be minimal, and liberals and conservatives alike would find their values served.
Youth work to conserve cities, towns and the hinterland can be essentially self-financing. The benefits defy calculation: young lives given meaning, welfare and crime costs avoided, and human and natural resources made productive for decades ahead.
Some active conservation corps proposals deserve immediate attention. Last June, United States Rep. Edward Roybal, an original Civilian Conservation Corps member, proposed ''CCC II.'' In late October, Democratic Representatives Seiberling, Moffett, and Roybal, with Republican Representatives Bereuter and Conte, introduced the Public Lands Conservation, Rehabilitation and Improvement Act. Their bill, H.R. 4861, would create urban and rural ''conservation centers'' for youth work throughout the nation. It now has over 80 House cosponsors. Senators Moynihan and Mathias have just introduced the same bill in the US Senate.
The small year-round youth conservation program now dying from budget slashes performs needed natural resource and facility-maintenance work for the Interior and Agriculture Departments, the states, and local governments. The cost is 20 percent lower than any alternative procurement of the same services, and considerable gains for young people and society accrue without charge. The work is demanding, and it builds character, confidence, and basic skills. ''Hard work , low pay, and miserable conditions,'' advertises the state-backed California component, which has many more applicants than positions. Enrollees often say, like 16-year-old Antonio Dixon of Brooklyn, that without this experience, ''I'd be in trouble.''
Under the same program, said New York Mayor Edward I. Koch last July, crews of primarily black and Hispanic high school dropouts, at a cost of $2.9 million, completed work projects in more than 70 parks throughout the city: ''The open market value of this work is estimated at $8.8 million.'' Could this be workfare? The mayor called it ''a relatively inexpensive but high-impact program'' that is ''critical for urban areas.''
Some federal funds available even now could finance youth work. The National Park Service has new money for maintenance catchup, some of which is labor-intensive and could be performed most cheaply by minimum-wage crews. Aid to insulate low-income people's homes, although reduced, could finance weatherization like that done in New York by the foundation-backed Youth Energy Corps. Each state's share of federal taxes on hunting and fishing equipment could help support habitat-saving youth projects. The mushrooming Abandoned Mine Land Fund, launched in 1978, takes in $200 million a year from coal companies; little has been spent from the fund, and it could well pay young workers to plant ravaged strip-mine slopes.
The revenue-producing possibilities on private lands are immense. Small woodlots produce poor trees because timber stand improvement doesn't pay at prevailing wages, but low-paid youth crews could make the difference, benefiting landowners, the timber and housing industries, and ultimately consumers. Such fee service for landowners could include low-cost soil conservation, wildlife enhancement, stream-bank protection, and other projects, supplanting government outlays for both conservation and youth jobs. Some authorities assert that youth crews gathering forest waste for gasohol production would be self-financing energy producers.
Both immediate and long-term savings in the costs of crime, incarceration, and welfare programs would be large. Enrollment preference should be given to disadvantaged youth from families in poverty. With recent youth unemployment at 22 percent, and more than 45 percent for black youth, and with a growing national backlog of maintenance -- from dilapidated urban facilities to eroding grasslands -- we must combine human and natural resources to save both.
Four months after the CCC was proposed to Congress in 1933, there were 200, 000 young men at work in camps across the country. Ultimately enrolling 500,000, Franklin Roosevelt's initiative acquired wide bipartisan support and became a source of pride for all Americans. Today's youth and tomorrow's human and natural resources warrant no less.