Sunday, August 3, 2014

California burns, and the CCC and WPA remain in the past

(WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

California has been pummeled by numerous wildfires in recent years. And, on Saturday, August 2, 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to the wildfires burning in the northern part of his state.

Despite widespread drought, record-setting wildfires, climate change, and high youth unemployment (currently 11.3% for adults aged 20-24), Congress has not seen fit to revive the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). That highly successful program remains firmly sealed in the past. Many of our Congressmen and women are way too busy seeking campaign cash from millionaires & billionaires to be concerned with the burning of our natural areas. Indeed, as part of a broad strategy to keep taxes low on the super-wealthy, Congress has actually cut funding for fire prevention and firefighting (see, e.g., "California Wildfires and BLM Budget Cuts" and "Wildfire Budget Cuts: Federal Firefighting Spending Trimmed Due To Sequestration").

(WPA workers build a fire lookout tower in Cecil County, Maryland, during the Great Depression. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

The CCC's fire prevention and firefighting activities are legendary. But many people might not be aware that the WPA was also very active in this area. For example, WPA workers built fire lookout towers, fought fires directly, and created 6,300 miles of new firebreaks.

Some people might say, "Well, that was fine then, but it's not feasible today because of modern firefighting methods." But the error of that argument is highlighted by the fact that we currently train and use prisoners to fight wildfires (see "Thousands Of Inmates Serve Time Fighting The West's Forest Fires"). There's no reason we can't train some percentage of our current unemployed population to do the same (either clearing out dead vegetation, building firebreaks, fighting fires directly, or filling support roles). 

Unfortunately, we are living in such politically toxic times, that many politicians are more interested in using the unemployed as punching bags to score political points--gleefully casting them as lazy "parasites" and "takers." Indeed, when we tried to create a new CCC-type program for our unemployed veterans, Senate Republicans quickly blocked the legislation, perhaps fearing that their unemployed punching bags were going to be taken away from them and given useful work, and that their "unemployed-are-lazy" talking point would be proven wrong. And maybe this vulgar political gamesmanship is why Congress has record low approval ratings.

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