Nature's New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement

By Neil M. Maher | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
New Deal Conservation

In late April 1933, a young man named John Ripley climbed a solitary pine tree atop the Massanutten Mountains in George Washington National Forest, ten miles west of Luray, Virginia. After catching his breath on the uppermost branch, which bowed dangerously under his own weight, Ripley took a short-handled ax and with awkward strokes chopped the top off the slender pine. He next attached a rope and pulley to the tip of the tree, shimmied from his perch, and began working his way down the trunk of the thirty-five-foot evergreen, hacking off branch after branch until the young tree stood straight and bare. Near the bottom, Ripley wiped his brow before tying the other end of the rope to an American flag. At the base of the tree, where a crowd of locals from nearby communities had gathered along with newspaper reporters, magazine photographers, and film crews from across the country, a cheer quickly went up. Then, as if on cue, John Ripley’s colleagues, who were all dressed in identical olive-green uniforms, pulled on the rope and hoisted Old Glory high above Camp Roosevelt, the first Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in the nation.1

While the conversion of a pine tree into a flagpole by young CCC enrollees may alarm contemporary environmentalists, it nevertheless hints at a number of important historical changes set in motion by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Most obvious was the modification of the natural landscape, in this case a mountaintop pine grove, which Corps enrollees altered through their physical labor. The more than 3 million young men who joined the CCC between 1933 and 1942 undertook similarly transformative work, planting 2 billion trees, slowing soil erosion on 40 million acres of farmland, and developing

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