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Civilian Conservation Corps merits monument

SANTA FE, N.M. — From 1933 to 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a public work relief program that employed out-of-work, young unmarried men as part of the New Deal. Similarly, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided jobs for men and women during those years.

New Mexico was an important venue for the CCC and the WPA. The state had forests, farmlands, mountains and grasslands in need of the kinds of conservation work these programs provided. It had the kinds of outdoor environments that the CCC preferred as locations for its camps; it had populations in serious economic distress; and it had the political leadership of Governor Clyde Tingley, who was capable of combining all these amenities for public benefit.

It was no accident that New Mexico had more CCC camps than any other state. Today, we are the beneficiaries of the work accomplished by those who served in the CCC and WPA.

Although the CCC and the WPA were important to the nation and to National Parks throughout the country, and although their works remain evident in many parks, nowhere is there a unit of the National Park System dedicated to preserving and telling their stories. There ought to be such a national monument, it ought to be in New Mexico and it ought to be at the Old Santa Fe Trail Building in Santa Fe, itself a CCC project.

President Barack Obama can take a major step forward regarding that almost forgotten, but significant, part of our national history, by proclaiming a Civilian Conservation Corps/Works Projects Administration National Monument at the Old Santa Fe Trail Building.

At such a national monument, Americans can commemorate the lives and the lasting accomplishments of those who worked on CCC and WPA projects. Citizens and local leaders should be helping Director Jon Jarvis and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell advance the idea to the president. This should be an easy win for everyone.

In our 2013 book “New Mexico: A History,” Robert Spude, Art Gomez and I cover the importance of the CCC and the WPA in creating outstanding buildings, parks and other public assets in our state. The CCC took young men off the streets, enabling them to support their parents and siblings at home, while they created works of lasting value to the nation. The WPA employed laborers of many skills, but also artists, craftspeople, writers, dramatists, actors and others.

In our history of New Mexico, my co-authors and I described the former National Park Service regional headquarters building as the most recognizable CCC contribution to the entire National Park System. WPA pottery, paintings, tin work and other forms of art decorate the building.

Between 2011 and 2014, as an employee of the National Park Service, I served on a special task force assembled by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to assess how the historical contributions of Hispanics are represented in the National Park System. Several National Parks deal with our Spanish colonial heritage as a part of our national story.

Few parks, if any, are dedicated to telling the story of Hispanic Americans since then. Secretary Salazar resolved to correct that deficiency and his successor Sally Jewell has, to an extent, continued that goal.

The CCC camps in New Mexico were substantially populated by young Hispanic and Native American men. Significantly, a good many of the builders of the Old Santa Fe Trail Building were Hispanic. Many of our grandparents worked on CCC or WPA projects. Their legacy lies in their accomplishments as participants in this important part of our national history.

Joseph P. Sánchez, Ph.D., retired from the National Park Service in 2014 after 35 years of service, seven of them in the NPS Old Santa Fe Trail Building. An Albuquerque resident, he has published several history studies on the Spanish Colonial frontiers. His new book, “Early Hispanic Colorado, 1678-1900,” will be out in August.

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