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.

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.

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.

Natural defense against climate change

Third, we need to address climate change now. One of the profound advantages of regrowing soil organic matter is that the process also sequesters carbon dioxide (a potent greenhouse gas). No human technology will ever be as efficient at reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) as planting, nurturing, and restoring the native plants that created and maintained the productive soils in the first place. In agricultural areas, soils can be regrown through reduced tillage, cover cropping, mulching, and by maintaining uber-vigilance over the type and amount of nitrogen fertilizers used along with the timing of their application.

These things can be accomplished by putting people to work eliminating invasive species from our forests, grasslands, wetlands, and streams, and by implementing more sustainable agricultural techniques.

The Senate was unable to pass even the most watered-down climate bill this summer. But, in truth, you don’t even have to “believe” in global warming to embrace these strategies. Many farmers I know aren’t convinced that climate change is anthropogenic, but I have never met a farmer who didn’t believe in good soils.

Healthy Earth jobs program

We need a “Healthy Earth” jobs program, which could become a model for other nations to consider. It’s been a very long time since every American had some purpose and vision around which we can all work together. Whether you have a windowsill tomato plant in a New York City high-rise or a dairy farm in rural Vermont, it’s not difficult to see the wisdom in improving natural resources, particularly regrowing soils.

A conservation jobs program that restores and nurtures nature is a single investment that can:

• Reduce invasive plants.

• Repair soils that feed the United States and the world.

• Reduce GHG emissions caused by degenerating land (one of the largest sources of America’s carbon dioxide emissions).

• Clean our nation’s waters.

This could, in fact, save us countless billions of dollars down the road by not having to use much more expensive, less effective, and more time-consuming methods focused on maintaining soil fertility and land productivity. That's on top of the human and financial cost of coping with the flooding, disease and malnutrition, and unpredictable weather patterns projected in many climate-change scenarios.

A conservation stimulus package would restore people to rewarding jobs by restoring nature.

Steven Apfelbaum is chairman and founder of the firm Applied Ecological Services, based in Brodhead, Wis. He is also the author of “Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm,” and the co-author, with Dr. Alan Haney, of “Restoring Ecological Health to Your Land.”

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