When America was in the throes of the Great Depression nearly a century ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced a series of initiatives that would be almost impossible to imagine today — at least at the national level. But our brave little state (thanks for that phrase, President Coolidge) does a better job of bucking trends and leading the way than many others. So one of Roosevelt’s ideas certainly seems worthy of consideration.
In 1933, Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC at its peak employed half a million men. It planted more than 3.5 billion trees, created more than 700 state parks, fought wildfires, built 3,000 fire towers and maybe most impactful for Vermont, created the U.S. ski industry — starting in the Green Mountain State, cutting trails for mountains like Stowe, among others.
Fast forward to today, and our state can use a program like this again — with some alterations, of course. It shouldn’t be limited to men, it also shouldn’t be segregated as it was in the 1930s. But the need for the work and the enormous potential payoff exists. It’s also a program that has the likelihood to cross the political aisle because of the breadth of benefits it can provide regardless of political leanings.
While the tech industry is starting to be a financial player in Vermont, our bread and butter — and artisanal cheese and craft beer — is still heavily dependent on farms, logging, syrup production and the big money maker, tourism. There’s a familiar thread running through those spaces. Each is heavily dependent on the environment. And reports from neighboring states, a drive down your road or just a look around your property should give you some cause for concern.
We have reports of Asian longhorned beetles and spotted lanternflies — species accidentally introduced to North America decades ago that have caused devastation to forests and farms coming from neighboring state. In our state, the emerald ash borer has been confirmed — a beetle first seen in Michigan in 2002 that has killed more than 30 million ash trees in that state alone. In comparison, what you may have seen in your yard this year — Lymantria dispar (formerly known as gypsy moth) caterpillars — hardly seems to be a problem, but they can kill trees, too. And bordering our roads? Miles and miles of wild parsnip, another invasive, is propagating.
Although we think of Vermont as a “little” state, there’s still lots of ground to cover and there just aren’t enough game wardens and rangers to go around. We have the option to sit and wait and hope for the best, or we can be proactive in protecting our livelihoods and our leisure activities. Creating a Vermont-centric CCC has the possibility to safeguard what we hold dear.
Take a look at the easiest problem first. Wild parsnip, also called poison parsnip, is a root vegetable native to Europe and Asia. It was introduced to North America by the settlers and eventually escaped their gardens and has been causing problems ever since. If the sap of the plant gets on your skin, and that skin is exposed to daylight, you can get a severe chemical burn. Needless to say, hikers and hunters don’t want to wade through fields of this plant. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to control. Sure, towns can send the road crew out to trim it down before it flowers, and lopping it a couple times a season might take care of it, but carefully pulling up the whole plant is more effective — until you multiply that action by millions. But a few thousand Vermonters getting out to the fields and handling that? It’s a challenge we could overcome.
And they wouldn’t just be pulling up parsnip. They’d be keeping an eye out for those insect enemies — the emerald ash borer, the Asian longhorned beetle, the spotted lanternfly and, just for good measure, hungry caterpillar outbreaks. The program would cost money obviously, but so, too, did the original Roosevelt program, and with nearly 100 years under our belts as a ski destination and leaf-peeper mecca for even longer, we have an idea of how that investment paid off and how much we stand to lose. The investment to keep those things around for another 100 years would surely be paid back with interest.