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Biden's Civilian Climate Corps Would Tackle Climate Change, Care For Public Lands

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the aftermath of the Great Depression, with millions of Americans out of work, then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created one of the most celebrated public plans in U.S. history.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: In magnificent natural beauty of the American national parks have gone many companies of the Civilian Conservation Corps to further projects which will guard this wealth of beauty against destruction by men and nature.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Biden administration is trying to bring back the Civilian Conservation Corps to help fight climate change. NPR's Scott Detrow in Washington and Nathan Rott in Montana explain how that might work.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Nearly a hundred years since the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, much of its legacy...

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ROTT: ...Is still being put to use.

TOM FORWOOD: Of everything they did here, this tunnel's the most impressive piece of work.

ROTT: Tom Forwood is the assistant manager of Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park in west central Montana.

FORWOOD: Five hundred and thirty-eight feet long, blasted from the outside in.

ROTT: The tunnel is big. You could walk down it comfortably until the passage opens into a massive dark cave, where the air is heavy with a chilly humidity. This cave, Forwood says, was discovered by a member of the Conservation Corps who decided to do a little non-sanctioned exploring.

FORWOOD: Like I said, slithered through all of that and came out into just this.

ROTT: He hits the lights.

Whoa.

FORWOOD: So it's by far the largest room we know of in the cave system. It has the biggest formations in the whole cave that we know of as well.

ROTT: Ribbed columns of rocks stretch from ceiling to floor, looking like glistening coral reefs.

FORWOOD: Some of these formations are still - these are a million years old.

ROTT: And every year, 70 to 80,000 people get to enjoy them. That's not to mention the millions more who use trails, the campgrounds, the bridges, the dams and other work that was done by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

FORWOOD: That's one of the things I hear the most from our visitors when they talk about the history at all. They lament the loss of that type of an organization, the CCC.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Here in Washington, it makes sense President Biden is so drawn to the idea of rebooting one of the most popular, enduring programs from the New Deal. Biden has draped himself in FDR symbolism, and like Roosevelt, he's made big government spending and programs a key part of his agenda.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: A once-in-a-generation investment in America itself. This is the largest jobs plan since World War II.

DETROW: In fact, Biden has positioned himself as the first president in generations to, like FDR, unapologetically pitch the federal government and government spending as the solution to big problems. In last week's joint address to Congress, Biden ticked through major government projects over the years - everything from the Transcontinental Railroad to Mars rovers.

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BIDEN: These are investments we made together as one country and investments that only the government was in a position to make. Time and again, they propel us into the future.

DETROW: Jonathan Alter wrote a book about Roosevelt's first hundred days.

JONATHAN ALTER: Well, we've been living in the shadow of Reagan's America. Now it's back to the future. We're going to start to live in the shadow of FDR.

DETROW: Alter says it fits that, as Biden tries to connect government to people's lives again, he'd want to signal to a project as broad and lasting as the CCC.

ALTER: They planted 3 billion trees. This, you know, saved the topsoil of the United States. It created all kinds of state parks.

DETROW: But how would this actually work? To begin with, there would be a couple major differences from the original CCC - the first, scope. Biden wants to spend $10 billion on his new CCC, a sliver of the infrastructure plan, not to mention the original program adjusted for inflation. That means far fewer jobs would be created. But they'd be offered to a broader group of people. For all the nostalgia the CCC brings up among progressives, there's the reality it was racially segregated, closed off to women and paid almost nothing. Collin O'Mara, the head of the National Wildlife Federation, has been pushing for a reboot for a long time but says there's no question that dynamic would need to be different.

COLLIN O'MARA: If this is simply a gap year for college kids from the suburbs, like, we will have absolutely failed on every level. And so I think that means more inclusive hiring. I mean, I think it means doing work in both urban and rural environments. It means specifically doing outreach to Black, Latino, Latina, Indigenous, Asian American organizations to help build, you know, strong partnerships to do work on the ground.

DETROW: Biden wants to focus this CCC on climate change. It would be the Climate Corps, not the Conservation Corps. It's not necessarily about the programs cutting carbon emissions, says Ali Zaidi, one of Biden's top climate advisers. Instead, Zaidi says the project would be much more about mitigation, better preparing for the extreme weather already here.

ALI ZAIDI: We need to recognize that one of the risks that our infrastructure faces today comes from the unleashed impacts of a changing climate, whether it's wildfire or floods or heat waves.

DETROW: There are several versions of the plan in Congress right now, plus an executive order. Colorado Congressman Joe Neguse, a Democrat, is playing a key role in shaping the bills, and he sees the program as similar to AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps.

JOE NEGUSE: Trail construction and maintenance, fence construction and removal, fire fuels mitigation in our forests and wildland fire suppression, invasive species treatment and eradication.

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ROTT: To get a sense of what that work would look like, spend a day with the Montana Conservation Corps, one of more than 100 smaller corps modeled after the original. The crew of mostly early 20-somethings are rehabbing a popular hiking and biking trail here in northwest Montana, removing downed trees and encroaching plants.

EMILY BROWN: Jeez, Louise.

ROTT: Twenty-two-year-old Emily Brown is from North Carolina.

BROWN: Yeah, yeah. I'm kind of doing that.

ROTT: Crews like this do work throughout Montana and other states every year, helping improve trails, fixing aging infrastructure, clearing vegetation to slow fires. And it is hard, hard work.

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ROTT: The crew comes from all over the country.

KAILE KIMBALL: I'm from Maine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Dayton, Ohio.

JACK O'HANLON: New York.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Chicago.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Pennsylvania.

ROTT: Do you have friends back home that are like, what are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Absolutely.

ROTT: What do you tell them?

O'HANLON: Having more fun than you.

(LAUGHTER)

ROTT: Most joined the Montana Conservation Corps because they have an interest in the outdoors or in dealing with climate change. That includes 23-year-old Jack O'Hanlon from New York.

O'HANLON: You want a future, right? You know, like, if you're going to have kids, like, you want them to, like, enjoy outside, you know, being in nature.

ROTT: For Kaile Kimball from Maine, the inspiration came from her own past.

KIMBALL: My grandfather joined the CCC when everyone lost their jobs, actually, to provide for his family.

ROTT: He helped construct the Appalachian Trail.

KIMBALL: So it's a cool feeling to be doing the same type of work.

ROTT: Part of the goal of this corps and the original CCC was not just to provide jobs but create a place for young people to develop. Joe Spofforth is 21 and from Columbus, Ohio.

JOE SPOFFORTH: There's big pushes in education these days to, you know, go right from high school to college and then to graduate in exactly four years. And that was my plan until COVID hit, and I decided to come out here. And I sort of realized after taking a step back that I had no idea what I was doing. So coming out here and working has given me a great opportunity to sort of find out more about myself and my interests and what I want to do.

ROTT: And he says he hopes more people will soon have a similar opportunity.

I'm Nathan Rott, NPR News, in Montana.

DETROW: And I'm Scott Detrow in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUSINE'S "PANORAMIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.