For Stimulus, Is Obama Mulling Creating a New Conservation Corps?

Several groups are pushing Obama to create new jobs by rebuilding America's national parks.

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Seventy-five years ago, faced with a terrible economy, rising unemployment rates, and new environmental concerns, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created what would become one of the hallmark programs of the New Deal era: the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed at its height more than half a million people.

Today, President-elect Barack Obama, grappling with his own set of economic and environmental challenges, appears to be considering a similar, if somewhat smaller, conservation corps as part of the massive economic stimulus package now under discussion.

Few details have been publicly released, but there are at least two developments that suggest Obama is exploring the corps idea. First, he cosponsored legislation this year in the Senate to boost volunteerism and increase funding for service projects. And in recent weeks, members of his transition team have met with groups promoting the idea.

"We have talked with the transition team, indeed we have," says Tom Hill, legislative representative for the National Parks Conservation Association. "They are playing their cards very close to the vest in terms of what the final stimulus package is going to look like, but we have talked to a lot of people, and we also have spoken with people on the Hill who like this idea and are interested in helping us with it."

The National Parks Conservation Association, specifically, is advocating for the creation of a new "parks service corps," which they say would create about 10,000 jobs in the first year, and potentially expand to 20,000 jobs over the next five years, at a cost of about $200 million annually. Officials there say the U.S. national parks system has a giant backlog of projects totaling about $8 billion, with miles of public roads in dismal condition, and an annual budget shortfall of about $800 million.

"Frankly, some of these things were constructed in the '30s during the CCC period and need to be rebuilt and shored up," says Hill. "A lot of it is roads and bridges, but there are structural problems with public facilities and also problems with things like invasive species."

The CCC, which ran from 1933 to 1942, when Congress cut off funding in light of World War II, ultimately enrolled more than 3 million workers, mostly young men, and helped create much of the modern American park system. Since then, the corps program has existed in a more modest, less centralized form, with various groups today enrolling about 26,000 people.

Obama, however, appears to be keen on expanding it, in part because it fits rather nicely into his push for national service jobs, which he publicized during the campaign. In fact, the "Serve America Act," the Senate bill he cosponsored this year (along with Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain, among others), calls for funding 175,000 national service jobs by 2013. Some of these would focus on conservation and restoration of the environment. The bill itself is stuck in committee, but another proposal in the bill that might fit into his stimulus package is the creation of a "Clean Energy Service Corps," which would enroll workers to retrofit buildings.