THE BLOG
01/08/2014 05:02 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

A Civilian Conservation Corps for the Modern Age

Consider the story of LaShauntya Moore. Growing up in one of toughest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., her story might seem all too familiar -- a pregnant teenager, high school dropout and homeless mother -- her life was in the abyss until an unexpected opportunity came her way. She joined the Earth Conservation Corps, a nonprofit that marries two endangered species -- the polluted Anacostia River, and the young people who live in some of the most impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods in America -- through a year of full-time civilian national service.

By working to clean up the Anacostia, restore the Bald Eagle's habitat and build a river walk so others could enjoy these natural resources, Moore's own life turned around. After helping to bring back the Bald Eagle to the nation's capital, she described her journey: "Nobody believed in us... But [the ECC] showed us what we could become. If the eagle can come back, so can we."

That's why today's announcement by Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Sally Jewell, was so welcomed. On the National Mall, with a backdrop of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Memorial, Secretary Jewell invoked the legacy of FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps to launch what she called a "CCC 2.0" -- a 100,000 person strong "21st Century Conservation Service Corps" that will eventually give thousands of young people like Moore, and veterans whose transitions home from war are improved through civilian national service, the opportunity to serve their country and enhance their lives.

More than 80 years ago, FDR saw power in marrying two threatened resources -- millions of unemployed young men during the Great Depression with the public lands beset by deforestation and soil erosion. His CCC put more than three million young men into productive service over a decade with impressive results: Three billion trees planted, 97,999 miles of fire roads built, 800 parks constructed and proper drainage for more than 84 million acres of agricultural land (almost the equivalent acreage of our entire National Park System). But FDR knew that the transformation ran deeper -- not only in helping support young men and their families, but "the moral and spiritual value of such work."

Secretary Jewell spoke of those values, and she is that rare public servant who does not let the forces of inertia and limited federal resources constrain her leadership. In addition to ensuring the federal government will do its part, she is challenging the private sector to emerge with $20 million to support those nonprofits that deploy corps members. And she had a partner --American Eagle Outfitters -- with her today to throw down the gauntlet with the first one million in private support.

Given the needs today, with high youth unemployment, 6.7 million young people disconnected from school and work, two million veterans returning from war, and public lands and waterways in desperate need of our attention, our country has the opportunity to marry vulnerable resources once again. The 21st Century Conservation Service Corps points the way.

John Bridgeland is Co-Chair of the Earth Conservation Corps and the Franklin Project at The Aspen Institute. He was formerly director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.