Conservation Corps revival gains traction amid youth unemployment crisis

Anthony Adragna

There’s creeping momentum on Capitol Hill to revive a Great Depression-era conservation program as a way to put millions of young people back to work while restoring the nation’s outdoors.

The plan is based on the FDR-era Civilian Conservation Corps and calls for spending billions of dollars on a raft of conservation priorities ranging from forest management and public lands maintenance to coastal restoration and cleaning up abandoned mines. While a variety of proposals for the potential program have been floated, Democrats are hopeful it will attract support as a means to address the widespread economic wreckage from the coronavirus pandemic and because many of its conservation priorities can begin quickly.

“It’s a must for the economy, a must for public health and a must for protecting the places that Americans treasure,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the lead backers of the idea, said recently. “This kind of job creation, especially for young people and the opportunity it brings to restore lands, boost the outdoor economy and help to make rural America more resilient, is key.”

Wyden offered legislation in May that would provide billions toward creating a corps with a heavy focus on reducing wildfire risks. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) led a bill significantly expanding existing national service programs with a conservation title. And Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has pushed a proposal focusing on farm conservation practices and wetlands restoration.

Support has emerged in the House as well. Almost 80 Democrats urged their leadership to include $125 billion for a "21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps" in recovery legislation, though the infrastructure proposal unveiled this week omitted any funding. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), a senior appropriator, offered legislation pushing the idea prior to the pandemic and has done so in prior Congresses as well.

The interest in conservation also comes as the House prepares in late July to take up the Great American Outdoors Act, which would permanently provide $900 million in annual appropriations to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and offer billions to address the deferred maintenance backlog on the nation’s public lands. Advocates say those programs could draw a wave of young people to do that work.

But it’s unclear when the Senate will move on another coronavirus relief package, which would be the most likely legislative vehicle in the chamber. Supporters say it's likely the House will pass another economic recovery and stimulus package prior to the Senate moving, meaning anything included in the HEROES Act, the infrastructure package or a forthcoming recovery bill would be up for discussion.

They’re also encouraged that few Republicans have spoken out against the idea. Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, authored an op-ed in The New York Times in May advocating for the concept and told POLITICO that many GOP lawmakers had privately reached out to him to learn more about it.

“I’m not getting any level of partisan pushback,” O’Mara said. “There’s no certainties right now, but what we want to do is keep the idea moving.”

Republicans have traditionally been skeptical of pouring significant sums of money into government-run programs, but Democrats see the proposal as a way to get people back to work quickly. And some GOP lawmakers are publicly voicing interest in considering the idea.

“There's been a lot of discussion about how you can involve expansion of AmeriCorps to help facilitate this and kind of spin off from that. There has been a discussion about how we build out jobs and opportunities for young people,” Senate Energy Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told POLITICO. “So the idea of a Conservation Corps, a [Youth Conservation Corps] or something else is one that I think is worthy of consideration.”

Senior Democrats in both chambers support the push as well, recalling their own participation in similar programs growing up and memorable projects completed in their districts.

“I don't know why we can't show the importance of doing that again,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), ranking member of the Energy Committee, told POLITICO. “And I think this could be done to where we can have permanent maintenance and permanent repairs and permanent vigilance. And these programs are so near and dear to us.”

Others see a benefit in restarting conservation programs since it would not require reinventing the wheel, but instead simply returning to programs that have been proven in the past to put young people back to work.

“The challenge is there,” Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), chair of the Energy and Commerce Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee. “So many times history has a chance to repeat itself and we can even fine tune it to make it an even stronger repeat.”