At the advent of the 1930s, the natural resources of the United States were in dire straits. Millions of acres of forest had been excessively logged or devastated by fires that were occurring at intervals too close to allow natural revegetation. Along with the continuing drought, many forests were further stressed by severe infestations of tree-damaging moths and beetles or white-pine blister rust fungal outbreaks. In the forests and especially on the plains, the loss of vegetation meant increased erosion through wind. In such situations, even a small rain storm could quickly cause gullies to form and loss of more arable land. Farming and grazing practices of the time were not sensitive to issues of erosion and thus worsened the situation. Drainage ditches had become choked with silt, rendering them useless and burdening farmers with unprofitable cultivated fields prone to uncontrolled flooding. The runoff from the fields endangered fish and other wildlife in adjacent ponds, creeks, and lakes. In parks, footpaths and access roads often felt the brunt of the run-off, with washouts creating hazardous and uninviting conditions. Municipal reservoirs also suffered from the accelerated infilling. Cultural monuments were falling into ruins from either regional indifference or lack of funds.
The public works undertaken by the CCC were varied and monumental. Under the direction of technical advisors from agencies including the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, Soil Conservation and Biological surveys, and Bureau of Animal Industry, and the Department of Interior's General Land Office, Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, and Division of Grazing, much needed improvement projects were designated and executed on national, state, and county lands. In some instances, such as in the case of existing drainage districts, the CCC also worked on private tracts. In the main, the army ran the camps, but projects were submitted on a state level.
Many of the large-scale projects, nationally, involved the protection or reforestation of woodlands, including a major push to control forest fires. To this end 138,000 miles of roads and truck trails were built, 3,116 lookout towers or stations were erected, and 89,000 miles of telephone lines laid. Numerous tree nurseries were started and production increased more than 100% on established nurseries, due to CCC labor inputs. About 2.5 billion trees and 814,000 acres of grazing land were replanted, including the planting of shelterbelts on farmland. Insect and fungal control measures were applied on millions of acres of forest, saving hundreds of millions of dollars of timber nationally. These efforts earned the CCC participants the offhand nickname of "Roosevelt's Tree Army."
But the CCC efforts were not confined to forest projects. In the nine years of existence, 7,622 impoundment or large diversion dams were built and 972 million fish restocked from nurseries established during the program; 154 million square yards of stream banks and 40 millions acres of farmland were protected from erosion through, among other measures, the creation of terraces, introduction of contour plowing, strip cropping, and grass waterways. Eight hundred new parks came into existence. Nearly 52,000 acres of campgrounds were created. Almost 4,000 historic structures were renovated. Altogether, in 1942 dollars, these improvements were estimated to have an increased infrastructure value of two billion dollars. About 7,135,000 man-days of labor were invested in conservation projects. The nationwide cost, including allotments to dependents, was estimated at $3.5 billion--about $1,000 per enrollee per year. Of this, about $139.6 million was expended on Illinois projects and allotments.
In Illinois, there were around 50 CCC camps, with a couple dozen more in the peak year of 1935. For the large camps, the optimum work force per camp varied from 180 to 200 enrollees. Some larger Illinois state parks that had long-term or multiple projects are White Pines State Park, in Ogle County, Pere Marquette State Park, in Jersey County, Starved Rock State Park, LaSalle County, Trail of Tears State Forest in Union County, Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail (Will, Grundy, and LaSalle counties), and Giant City State Park in Union and Jackson counties. Several other state parks received improvements with CCC labor, including the development of a state tree nursery near Havana in Mason County and of Spring Lake in Tazewell County, and infrastructure improvements at Mississippi Palisades (Carroll Co.), and Illini (LaSalle Co.) state parks. Fox Ridge State Park, in Coles County, was entirely developed with CCC labor. Other projects were launched in Buffalo Rock (LaSalle Co.), Gebhard Woods (Grundy Co.), and Kickapoo (Vermilion Co.) state parks and Lincoln's New Salem (Menard County), Lincoln Log Cabin (Coles), and Black Hawk (Rock Island) state historical sites.
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