Nature's New Deal

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Neil M. Maher. Nature’s New Deal. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. xii, 316 pp. $35, ISBN 978-0-19-530601-9.



In Nature’s New Deal Neil Maher explores the history of the Civilian Conservations Corps (CCC), one of Roosevelt’s longest-lasting and most popular New Deal programs. Maher argues that the CCC is the crucial link between Progressive Era conservation (Teddy Roosevelt and the ‘strenuous life’ and the first National Parks) and post-World War II grassroots environmentalism. The CCC, lasting between March 1933 and the summer of 1942, employed three million young men and supervised over 4.5 billion hours of manual labor which transformed the American landscape. Maher also explores the evolution of and debate over the meaning of the word “conservation” during the lifetime of the program.

Nature’s New Deal is organized as a thematic chronology, beginning with Roosevelt’s influences in creating the CCC. Contemporary accounts listed four influences: a 1906 William James essay, similar youth programs in post-war Europe, rising juvenile delinquency, and Roosevelt’s pre-presidency conservation work. Maher argues that the latter was the major influence. Roosevelt was very involved in reforestation and in combating soil erosion on his family’s estate and had sponsored several reforestation bills in the New York legislature. He was also heavily involved in the Boy Scouts, in locating and purchasing land for campgrounds, and urging the program to include conservation lessons. As governor, he funded a program that hired unemployed New Yorkers to engage in planting trees. Maher’s argument that the idea for the CCC probably came organically from FDR’s experiences certainly seems plausible.

Once in office, FDR inaugurated the CCC almost immediately, opening the first camps in May 1933. He spread the camps throughout the country but focused on areas that did not have widespread Democratic support. The first months of the CCC focused on reforestation (CCC enrollees planted 2.3 billion trees in nine years of existence) and in 1934, the events of the Dust Bowl demonstrated the need to fight soil erosion. CCC workers expanded into national parks in 1935, working to provide structural and fire prevention improvements, but also to build visitors centers, lodges, roads, and hiking trails. The enrollees were single men between the ages of 18-25, most of whom had never had a full-time job, and were willing to send a large portion of their $30 monthly salaries home to their families. Most came from urban settings and knew little about nature, so they were provided with on-the-job instruction and formal night classes in conservation. According to Maher, the young men thrived under the CCC—classes were popular, and the enrollees claimed in private correspondence to feel as though they came to the CCC as boys and emerged as men. The CCC camps were also used as a tool to Americanize immigrants, though the camps were not used as tools of racial integration, as the camps were segregated.

As the CCC workers learned about conservation, so too did the communities they served. Maher focused on the communities of Coon Creek, WI, which was the focus of CCC work to reduce soil erosion, and Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which was reforested before CCC workers built roads, hiking trails, and campgrounds. The CCC work transformed the landscape for local residents, many of whom switched party affiliations after benefiting from the free labor. Maher argues that this was deliberate on the part of FDR, who used the CCC to sell the New Deal to those who had not supported him in 1932. As the CCC gained in popularity, it also attracted controversy, as a minority began to criticize the CCC’s definition of ‘conservation.’ Wildlife experts criticized the efforts as uncoordinated, often destroying or damaging important natural areas because of lack of knowledge about the ecological system of the area. The CCC also received complaints regarding the work in national parks, with critics stating that construction in the parks threatened the beauty and restorative properties of the wilderness. These new definitions of conservation (ecological balance and the importance of the wilderness) remained influential after World War II (in fact, the National Wildlife Federation was created in response to the CCC).

Maher’s final chapter and epilogue focus on the final years of the CCC and the post-war conservation movement. Maher places the “defining moment in the American conservation movement” (183) in 1937, when FDR sent Congress a proposal to reorganize the federal government, increase executive power, and make the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB) permanent. Maher doesn’t convincingly argue why this was a defining moment for conservation, though it certainly was for FDR, who found it much more difficult to get his legislation passed during this Third New Deal. Maher briefly describes the planning movement, the role of the NRPB, and the role the CCC workers played in the enactment of New Deal legislation, such as the TVA. The philosophy of ecology was used in the attempt to sell this legislation, with the argument that it would increase FDR’s ability to achieve the balance and interdependence (like in ecology) that was necessary for federal planning. Ultimately, the argument failed and the plan was defeated in April 1938. The CCC shut down in 1942 amid claims that it was taken needed money and manpower away from the war effort. In fact, 90% of the three million CCC workers served in World War II and in the final years of the Corps, many of the workers were used to build air fields and barracks. Maher concludes by arguing that after the war, many cities, counties, and regions instituted their own versions of the CCC, and that we are still seeing the effects in federal programs like Americorps. Even beyond the millions of acres forever changed by CCC labor, the CCC helped expand the composition of the conservation movement, giving the movement a grassroots voice.


Becky Erbelding, Spring 2010

Without writing a thousand pages, it is impossible to do justice to a nine year, nationwide, program that had over three million workers, planted billions of trees, and changed the landscape of the country. Maher’s book is an excellent starting point for future historians and is one of the first examinations of the CCC in its entirety, as other books have been either memoirs or regional studies. Maher examines the intellectual influences of the CCC, the way it affected the land, the men, the community, and the conservation movement as a whole. He does not examine how the agency operated bureaucratically, but rather how it operated on the ground and how FDR used the popularity of the CCC to gain support. The book is entertaining, perhaps because the CCC is the most accessible New Deal program. The reader does not need to understand economics or tax reform to understand the employment of young men doing conservation work. Maher also raises excellent questions about the definition of the term “conservation” and is convincing in his argument that a grassroots environmentalist movement rose out of opposition to the CCC. This is the same movement which is politically active today, and the debates that raged between the CCC definition and the ecological and wilderness definitions of conservation are still being fought.

Celeste Sharpe, Spring 2013

Maher uses an interesting trope, the landscape, as his analytical tool for this study of early twentieth century conservation/preservation and the CCC. He argues that the landscape "makes room for definitions involving both material and cultural nature, while at the same time focusing historic analysis less on the causes of ecological change and more on its consequences for human and nonhuman alike." He argues that the CCC democratized conservation knowledge and practice from its concentration among Progressive Era experts, introduced the welfare state to the general public, and forged broad geographic support for the New Deal.

The different kinds of projects (on farms, forests, and parks), he argues, were strategically placed by FDR and his administration to maximize local and regional support for New Deal programs and the Democratic party. This didn't mean that the CCC was without criticism. Both ends of the political spectrum found fault with the program: the left criticized the paramilitary organization of the Corps, labeling it a form of fascism, while the right blasted it a Bolshevik-style initiative. FDR's response was to promote the ameliorating and Americanizing effect of Corps participation and projects on the health of the American people. Thus, by adhering to Progressive Era ideals of conservation as responsible resource use and the benefits of the CCC to the social and environmental landscape, the CCC endured criticism until its end in 1942. New ways of thinking about conservation based on ecological approaches eventually replaced the Progressive ideas, and fostered organization of diverse non-governmental groups concerned with preservation.

While Maher does a good job tracing the CCC from its Progressive origins through to the postwar period, he doesn't fully address several significant issues. The low numbers of accepted African Americans, the segregation and less-favorable placement of their camps, and the community opposition that centered on race were briefly covered, but not given the same kinds of analytic attention as the rhetorical divisions between conservationists and preservationists. The lack of attention to race, class, and gender is not so much a concern in the book until he talks explicitly about the demographic makeup of the enrollees and how CCC participation formally and informally infused conservation principles into its members that later contributed to the proliferation of postwar grassroots organizations. Here also, Maher doesn't quite push far enough with his gendered analysis of the CCC. The CCC's emphasis on largely white males ages 18-25, the paramilitary structure of the program, and Maher's short discussion of how the CCC's conservation worked simultaneously on the physical landscapes of the land and the bodies and intellect of the participants would have greatly benefited from an extended consideration of the gendered roles and ideas at play. He also misses an opportunity to connect the bodily rehabilitation with notions of public hygiene, race suicide, eugenics and sterilization, and the growing threat of totalitarianism. The requirement that enrollees send the vast majority of their wages back to their families and the boosts to local economies stemming from CCC participant spending is a small overlap with the consumer politics driven approaches of Lizabeth Cohen and Meg Jacobs, and suggests an opportunity for further study that fell at the periphery of Maher's focus. Overall, Maher has much greater success when discussing the tension between ideas of conservation and preservation, and the shift from the Progressive ideas that underpinned the decision to build the Hetch Hetchy Dam to the ideas that successfully opposed the plans to build the Echo Park Dam.

Megan Brett, Spring 2014

I agree with Sharpe (above) that Maher is at this strongest when discussing the tensions and interplay between preservation and conservation. I also would have liked to see a more in=depth examination of the experience of the enrollees, masculinity, ethnicity, and Americanization. Maher’s statement that enrollees saw themselves as unmanly when they signed up seems to accept the sources at face value. Most of the sources he cited for this assertion were written by Corps enrollees toward the end of or after their service, and at least one was written to promote the CCC. I also think that Maher should have more thoroughly examined the cultural roots of the masculinity taught in the CCC in comparison to ideas of masculinity in the cultures from which the enrollees came. The CCC masculinity seems very rooted in white, protestant culture (which Maher references in shorthand through Teddy Roosevelt), and I am curious it may have conflicted or complimented ethnic minorities’ versions of masculinity.

Another area in which Maher's analysis might have benefited from more critical work is negative responses to the CCC by communities. He briefly mentions early concerns regarding the character of the enrollees, and their possible negative impact on the local communities. Once the camps were established, however, Maher implies that relationships between the camps and communities were fine. While perhaps not significant, it would be helpful to know if there were communities which continued to resist the CCC. I use communities consciously, as Maher uses two male individuals to demonstrate conservation-ecological objections to the CCC; the men were subsequently supported by communities of scholars or like-minded individuals, but not necessarily a geographically-based community.

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