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Blazing a new trail for nature

Could the army of green workers who transformed the US landscape inspire today's ecological revolution?

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

Oxford University Press: 2007. 328 pp. $35 9780195306019 | ISBN: 978-0-1953-0601-9

Imagine a government agency that transforms people's relationship with nature, creates millions of jobs and helps pull a nation out of an economic nadir. While political pundits on the left and right nit-pick, citizens embrace the agency's programme and forge a new constituency and political consensus that lasts for generations. The agency's work profoundly changes the physical landscape — parks, forests, farm fields, trails and roads — in ways that continue to remind people of the benefits of caring for nature within their communities. Such an agency existed, 70 years ago during the Great Depression in the United States. It lasted for less than a decade.

Farms, fields and roads in the United States were transformed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Credit: D. SHEEHAN/CORBIS

That agency was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It put three million unemployed men to work repairing the land, helping communities and themselves. The story of the CCC is recounted in Nature's New Deal.

In the midst of current economic and environmental crises, one may muse: “If only we could uncork this dream today!” Historian Neil M. Maher never makes the argument that the CCC should be reinvented in the present. But with jittery financial markets around the world evoking nervous comparisons to the Depression, we might look to the New Deal — President Franklin D. Roosevelt's response to the 1930s crisis — for historical lessons.

On the financial front, those lessons seem clear. The Glass–Steagall Act was a New Deal law that separated consumer banking from speculative investment banking. Its repeal in the late 1990s was one of the laissez-faire reforms that enabled the current troubles to develop and spread so widely. Now, we are again contemplating the recalibration of government oversight of financial markets on a scale first set by the New Deal.

Would we today mint a New Deal for nature too? The time is right. Global climate change demands policies at a global scale. And nations too must act. So far the United States has not, but with Republican and Democratic presidential candidates advocating a change from the Bush administration's do-nothing approach, a new policy on climate change is expected to emerge in the next administration. Aspects of that policy might look a lot like the CCC. Maher's history of the corps illuminates the possibilities, and limitations, of such an approach.

One can hear echoes of the CCC in a growing US campaign calling for the creation of 'green jobs' that will give 'energy independence' and so slow global warming. The Apollo Alliance — a coalition of labour unions and environmental groups — is even calling for the same number of jobs: three million workers to install solar panels, insulate homes and build wind turbines. The number is, perhaps, just a curious coincidence. But it does highlight a problem. That problem is scale.

The CCC did a lot with 3 million jobs. It planted more than 2 billion trees, slowed erosion on 16 million hectares of farmland and developed 800 new state parks, while constructing more than 10,000 small reservoirs, 46,000 vehicular bridges, 13,000 miles of hiking trails and nearly 1 million miles of fencing. Maher writes: “All told, conservative estimates indicate that corps projects across the United States altered more than 118 million acres, an area approximately 3 times the size of Connecticut.” Actually, that is more than 30 times the size of Connecticut. An area larger than California, yet smaller than Texas, this is still only about 5% of the total land area of the United States.

Most CCC projects were concentrated along the rivers and tributaries of the Mississippi watershed, where erosion and floods were rife. The corps deployed idle manpower in a massive 'green jobs' programme, giving unemployed, single young men work outdoors, plus room and board. The men sent their salaries home, providing relief for their families.

It was also good politics. The CCC was a friendly local face for the New Deal programme. Roosevelt readily hitched his wagon to an agency that enjoyed approval ratings of better than 80%, even while the rest of the New Deal came under increasing attack. He talked of “a plan of cooperation with nature instead of what we have been doing in the past — trying to buck nature”. This was an appeal for cooperation among the people too.

Maher uses the CCC to make a sophisticated argument within the field of environmental history in the United States. He argues, in effect, that it is the missing link between the simple conservation of the Theodore Roosevelt era (1901–09) and the environmentalism that emerged after the Second World War. The link was forged by Franklin D. Roosevelt's 'broader conservation', which went beyond concern for efficiently managing natural resources to include people and communities in a more ecological form of national planning.

Just as important for Maher's argument were the grassroots reactions to the CCC. Planting trees seemed to be all for the good until early conservation biologists began to worry about how wildlife habitats were being changed. Meanwhile, the CCC's mania for blazing trails and building roads inspired a movement to preserve roadless wilderness areas. Maher argues for a bottom-up view of this new deal for nature, effectively turning the significance of the original New Deal (an undeniably top-down enterprise) on its head.

If the New Deal is going to be a touchstone for our economy and environment today, our inspiration should go further than the CCC. Maher leans too heavily on this one agency to explain the enormous changes that took place during the Depression and in its aftermath. One fundamental problem here is making a virtue of necessity. The CCC, like the rest of the New Deal, was tightly constrained by American politics, which was (still is) enamoured with the idea of bottom-up change, and thus wary of economic and environmental planning on a national scale.

Maher briefly opens up a view on this larger context in a chapter on the CCC's work with the Tennessee Valley Authority, a massive regional development programme undertaken by the national government. He does not follow the story into the authority's hydroelectric dams and energy. It is there, in the nexus of energy and environment, that we might find the real lessons of the New Deal for our troubled times. Unfortunately, it was not so much the New Deal as the Second World War that ultimately transformed the economy of the United States. Arguably, the war also transformed the country's relationship with the environment more than the CCC did. But that is another story. One can only hope that particular history does not have to be repeated for the United States to resolve another new deal for nature in this current era of global change.

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Christensen, J. Blazing a new trail for nature. Nature 452, 812–813 (2008).

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