America needs updated Civilian Conservation Corps

Illinois has thoughtfully defined and vetted a national program that is both comprehensive and flexible and would work well and benefit metropolitan and rural areas, tribal lands and U.S. territories.

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The Civilian Conservation Corps works in 1935 to change marshes into today’s Skokie lagoons. An updated version of the CCC, the Civilian Climate Corps, would create jobs and a green infrastructure plan.

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In late January, President Joe Biden signed an executive order calling for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps, a modern approach to a program that employed 3 million young men during the Great Depression and left an unprecedented legacy of parks, trails, and natural amenities throughout Illinois and across the nation. Gina McCarthy, the first White House national climate adviser, is leading a national task force to flesh out the Biden administration’s domestic climate program, including the details of a modern CCC. The head of Illinois’ congressional delegation has already shown the way. 

The executive order outlines a green infrastructure program that closely mirrors a plan carefully developed by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., in the last Congress, the “RENEW Conservation Corps Act.” U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., followed with a companion bill in the House. Illinois has thoughtfully defined and vetted a national program that is both comprehensive and flexible and would work well and benefit metropolitan and rural areas, tribal lands, and U.S. territories. Sen. Durbin is striving to incorporate several positive amendments from some of the national stakeholders, governmental agencies, and not-for-profits, and plans to reintroduce a consensus bill soon. 

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The president’s plan should be a bipartisan effort to build back better, and an early win in the administration if it builds off existing strong proposals. To build an equitable, inclusive, and forward-thinking new generation of Corps, the White House should look to Sen. Durbin and Rep. Rush’s plan which would commit $55.8 billion over the next five years to employ one million people in the service of public lands including city parks, forest preserves, and state and federal lands. This new generation of green infrastructure workers would support the growing backlog of deferred conservation projects, with 78% of the funds going directly to those jobs. And it would provide a living wage of at least a $15 an hour and apprenticeship opportunities to people across the country. 

Chicago needs this support. The preliminary unemployment rate for the city in December was just above 8%. And it’s worse for young people and people of color. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment nationally among people between the ages 20 and 24 was 10.3% in the last three months of 2020, and for young Black and Latino men, the unemployment rate reached nearly 20%. 

With Durbin’s plan, funds would be dispersed efficiently to build our green infrastructure in the face of climate, racial justice, and economic challenges. Chicago is well positioned to support a Civilian Climate Corps and bring jobs to the south and west sides – with the City’s Greencorps, Student Conservation Association and the Forest Preserves’ Conservation Corps, we can put people back to work, and invest in and expand these successful programs in smart and sustainable ways. 

The passage of the Great American Outdoors Act in July 2020 was a monumental bipartisan moment amidst an increasingly tumultuous time in Washington. It was the most significant legislation of the past fifty years supporting conservation efforts. Building on that success a Civilian Climate Corps should continue the bipartisan problem solving that our country needs to meet our three biggest challenges: the health, climate, and economic crises. Putting together a plan to put 1 million people back to work will not be easy, but the benefits – both economic and environmental – will be significant for Chicago, Cook County, the State of Illinois, and the entire nation. 

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White House Adviser McCarthy is familiar with the Durbin program. Before joining the White House leadership, she was president of the respected Natural Resources Defense Council, the first national organization to support and showcase Sen. Durbin’s program. We hope she and her National Climate Task Force will adopt the structure of this consensus program that has been so well researched and vetted and is ready for implementation. To build an equitable, inclusive, and forward-thinking new generation of Corps, look to Illinois with Sen. Durbin and Rep. Rush’s plan. 

Jerry Adelmann is president and CEO of Openlands, which has helped develop the Civilian Climate Corps.

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