Back then the semicircle of Druidish rocks west of Denver was called the Garden of the Angels.
The theater to be built there was modeled after the Theatre of Dionysus at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
It may have been a place of gods and angels, but it was built by 200 Depression-era, jobless grunts of Company 1848, Camp SP-13-C, Mount Morrison, of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Soldiers in FDR’s “Tree Army” were paid $30 per month to construct the theater by pick and shovel over 12 long years. The make-work project required them to remove 25,000 cubic yards of rock and dirt and lay 90,000 square feet of flagstone and 800 tons of quarried stone, and put up 30,000 pounds of reinforced steel.
The end result: Red Rocks Amphitheater, now considered one of the most sublime concert venues in the world.
Can the economic casualties of COVID find the same sort of storybook ending to this hard year?
Colorado Congressman Joe Neguse thinks so.
He has proposed a 21st Century Conservation Corps to help the country rebuild its way out of COVID.
"Our 21st Century Conservation Corps legislation would create a much-needed stimulus for America’s public lands and rural economies by taking a page out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s successful playbook and revitalizing this popular program born out of the New Deal," Neguse said in an email. "Our plan would put Americans back to work in natural resource management to restore America’s forests and would make needed investments to prevent catastrophic wildfire."
The proposal was written with Colorado and the West in mind, Neguse said, "with the firefighters and emergency management officials and with our public lands and our climate in mind."
Neguse's plan establishes a $9 billion fund for a corps to increase job training and hiring.
“As we deal with dual crisis’ in Colorado, both an economic crisis and the damage of devastating wildfires, our plan would address both by putting people back to work and providing economic stimulus, while getting to work on wildfire recovery and resiliency projects that our communities are in need of. President Biden has indicated his support for a Climate Conservation Corps and encouraged the enactment of the same. As such, our plan will further the President’s climate and economic agendas.”
Could it work? Well, its ancestor sure did.
The CCC was by far Roosevelt’s most popular program in getting America on its feet again after the Great Depression. Between 1933 and 1941, over 3 million men served in the CCC (women weren’t enlisted back then, alas). They planted three billion trees, created hundreds of public parks including all of Denver’s mountain parks, built a million miles of roads and hiking trails, restocked rivers with nearly a billion fish, built dams to control floods and drained swamps to stop malaria. They renewed and beautified the country.
The original CCC had strong bipartisan support. Neguse thinks the new program could too.
“Helping our communities recover from wildfires is something we can all agree must be a priority," he said. "I recently launched the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus alongside Congressman John Curtis from Utah to look at these issues and promote resiliency and mitigation solutions in the Congress. I’m optimistic that our 21st Century Conservation Corps proposal can gain Republican support, it's common-sense and would benefit both our economy, our public lands and communities hard hit by wildfires.”
We certainly face a time again when we need a program that provides jobs for those who lost them during covid, infrastructure improvements for a country that has put them off too long, and work that helps restore our forests and other natural treasures. But there’s a larger mission to a program like the Civilian Conservation Corps that speaks to our need as a nation for a solidarity of purpose right now. The “corps” part of the conservation corps is what could light imaginations.
I’ve been looking at old photos of CCC members. You see something in the faces of those old corps of tree soldiers. There’s a refound dignity in having meaningful work to be sure, but also a look of contagious happiness in their shared mission, the camaraderie of helping their brothers and country, in making a difference. The corps had its own newspaper. It was called “Happy Days.”
Our men and women in the armed services know well that sense of serving something larger than themselves. I imagine Americans felt that same sense of their country as a mission in the CCC, and during World War II and after 9/11, when tragedy bound us together rather than pushing us apart.
I remember the millions of flags that were spontaneously hung on the sides of buildings, across streets on wires, on house after house after house as we came together after 9/11. In a headline atop the first page of its Sept. 12 edition, the French newspaper Le Monde said it best: Nous sommes tous américains — we are all Americans now.
The idea of a 21st century corps calls us to service again at a time when we need to bind up our wounds and rebuild our economy — and ourselves.
When the first President Bush launched his “Thousand Points of Light” national service effort back in the 1980s, he said this: “The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in."
It’s time once again for us to take part in our country and pitch in.