The recently passed economic stimulus package includes $905 million for revitalizing our National Parks, many of which have suffered the same kind of neglect as other environmental causes during the past eight years of the Bush Administration. Such expenditures will both put people to work and restore public facilities at America's most magnificent natural areas from the Hudson Valley's Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites to the Grand Tetons and Denali National Park in Alaska. The Department of the Interior estimates that the funds will create 100,000 jobs over the next two years.
This investment builds on a proven precedent during other periods of economic hardship. During the Great Depression, one of President Franklin Roosevelt's chief means of boosting employment and jump-starting local economies was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). According to a fascinating Web site dedicated to "Roosevelt's Tree Army," as the CCC was dubbed, the 3.4 million men engaged in the program accomplished $2 billion worth of work. Those are 1942 dollars; adjusting for inflation, that amounts to more than $25 billion today.
President Roosevelt seized a unique opportunity to improve the lives not only of those enrolled in the CCC but of all Americans, present and future, while conserving some of America's greatest natural resources. From California to New York, Alabama to Maine, we continue enjoying the 800 state parks, 13,000 miles of hiking trails and 52,000 acres of public campgrounds built by the "Colossal College of Calluses" (another CCC nickname). The air we breathe is purer thanks to the carbon-sequestering effects of the two to three billion trees CCC workers planted, while the 40 million acres of farmland protected in erosion-control projects they undertook mean many of us can purchase fresh, healthy produce near our homes.
Others shared FDR's foresight during those trying economic times:
In 1934, when water companies declared acres of unspoiled forested hillsides surrounding San Francisco Bay "surplus" and thus available for development citizens banded together to urge creation of the East Bay Regional Park District. Despite the Depression, public funds were secured to purchase and permanently protect this land. Today it has become America's largest urban park district, encompassing 98,000 acres of open space and natural areas.
To halt encroaching development from destroying the stunning beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the National Park Service agreed in 1936 to build and maintain a scenic roadway atop the range if the states of Virginia and North Carolina purchased lands along the planned 470-mile wilderness route. The Blue Ridge Parkway is today America's longest and most visited national park.
Growing abandonment of farms led to the 1929 passage of New York's State Reforestation Law and subsequent acquisition of numerous large tracts that were devoted to "the establishment ... of forests for watershed protection, the production of timber and for recreation and kindred purposes." These areas became the nucleus of the State Forest System, helping New York go from 20 to 25 percent forest cover in 1890 to 62 percent now.
Today, our state and national leaders are presented with their own once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. The great temptation is to reduce funding for projects that don't appear to have an immediate "big bang." In New York, where I live, environmental groups and concerned citizens are fighting efforts by Gov. David Paterson to slash the Environmental Protection Fund, the state's prime means of creating new parks, preserving working farms and protecting communities' water quality. While this proposal may narrow the current budget deficit, it ignores the profound impact such projects have on residents' lives.
Difficult choices must be made during this economic crisis. But when it comes to ensuring the health of our planet and our grandchildren some choices just shouldn't be so hard.
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