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Corps value: Program would help national parks, environment

July 23, 2021
Op-ed

A new civilian conservation corps for the 21st century would create jobs to improve our parks and public lands.

You can sense the excitement this summer, the collective feeling of relief in America after a long and grueling year. Across the country, people are closing their screens and getting outside.

And we need it. More than four in 10 American adults — and nearly six in 10 younger adults — reported that the pandemic has had a serious impact on their mental health.

To deal with the stressors of COVID-19, we saw record numbers of people embracing the outdoors. More than 237 million visits were logged at National Parks in 2020, and many parks saw record crowds. Local parks and natural areas were no different.

But as people get outside, they also see the unfortunate reality that our national parks are in a state of disrepair. The cost of necessary deferred maintenance projects has grown to nearly $12 billion, and the story is all too familiar for state and local parks.

Last summer, we passed the Great American Outdoors Act, a landmark public lands bill that included $6.5 billion for deferred maintenance projects at our national parks. But to make these improvements a reality, we need to leverage this investment with a robust and diverse trained work force.

We hope to build on those investments though our RENEW Conservation Corps Act: a new civilian conservation corps for the 21st century creating jobs to improve our parks and public lands

Our bill would address the growing backlog of conservation projects in our parks and transform communities across the country by providing funding to implement projects from tree planting to habitat restoration, constructing green school yards, cleaning up brownfields, and fortifying our coasts and shorelines.

In addition to putting Americans to work, our legislation is designed to provide skills and training to serve people long after their corps employment. Our bill also invests in the communities it serves, requiring that the demographic makeup of any corps group reflect the demographics of the community in which the project is based.

A diverse green work force is vital to all communities. Numerous studies have shown that spending as little as ten minutes in nature lowers stress levels. Accessible and well-designed green spaces in neighborhoods can also reduce gun violence and violent crime.

This makes it all the more concerning that tree cover in urban areas is declining at a rate of 36 million trees every year. Worse, a recent study found that 92 percent of low-income blocks have less tree cover and hotter average temperatures than high-income blocks.

The RENEW Conservation Corps Act would help correct these and other environmental injustices by planting trees and creating new parks in communities that have historically been underinvested in and left behind.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, five million Americans were employed in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s original Civilian Conservation Corps. They planted 3.5 billion trees, built more than 700 state parks, and created 13,000 miles of trails.

The largest corps project took place right here in Illinois, where the CCC built the Skokie Lagoons on the North Shore; it also built numerous trails, parks, and shelters we still enjoy today, including the Starved Rock State Park Lodge.

It is more important than ever to acknowledge the extraordinary ability of our national parks and local green spaces to bring us together. Survey after survey shows that Americans want the government to invest in our parks and preserve them for the next generation at the national, state, and local level.

There is a unifying, democratic principle at the core of our parks: that we should create and preserve natural spaces that are open to all.

A Civilian Conservation Corps for the 21st century can bring us together.

With a president in the White House who has a shared belief in the value of investing in a conservation corps and in our national parks, we have a once-in-a-generation chance to make this vision a reality.

Let’s get it done.