Was it merely a matter of nostalgia when the US House of Representatives by a lopsided 301-to-87 vote enacted legislation last week to set up a new program for young people somewhat similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930 s? Considering that the vote included 70 Republicans, it would be hard to say that was the case. Rather, it seems that the increasing support for a new program to put young people to work restoring the nation's parks, monuments, and public lands - as envisioned in the proposed American Conservation Corps - addresses many of the concerns raised about youth in the 1980s.
The fact of the matter is that youth unemployment in the United States is running at historic records - and was doing so even before the current recession began in 1981. Among young people in general, joblessness is over 20 percent; among minority youths, close to 50 percent. Granted, many of these youths can be expected to be snapped up by private industry in future years, for the population is aging and more and more workers will be retiring. But many employment experts say that job opportunities for less-trained younger persons will remain tight for the next several years.
That is why a new CCC-type program appeals to many lawmakers. A somewhat similar program in California has turned in a fine record over the past few years. Critics of starting a new national corps, and these include the Reagan administration, raise such objections as cost ($60 million this year; $300 million annually in each of the next six years); the fact that the environmental jobs proposed for the corps tends to be dead-end work, failing to prepare young men and women for the highly technical, computerized tasks of the future; and the fact that the plan represents an example of federal intrusion into the marketplace.
Such concerns should not be lightly regarded as the Senate takes up the House measure. At the same time senators must not overlook many of the better aspects of the CCC of New Deal years. This program remained untouched by major scandal. Its work survives years later - in reforestation, in phone lines - even in public campsites (including Camp David where President Reagan likes to unwind.) In inculcating in young people a love of the land, personal discipline, and self-worth, the CCC gave a whole generation of Americans a sense of attachment and dedication to their nation. This newspaper in an editorial of July 1942 wrote that the ''CCC did a good job.'' ''One hopes,'' it went on, that ''there will not again be the same need to organize such a corps, but if there is, the pattern exists.''
The proposed new American Conservation Corps would put approximately 100,000 young men and women to work at various environmental tasks. It would not have the military-like orientation of the older CCC. If well led, it could make a worthwhile contribution both to the well-being of youth and to the nation.