Three of the five largest wildfires in Colorado’s history occurred in 2020, burning more than 620,000 acres. Launching next month, the Colorado Climate Corps hopes to prevent similar catastrophes before they ignite. Some, however, question whether the coalition can achieve the goal it’s set for itself.

Inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps—a New Deal–era work relief program that employed three million men to work on wildfire suppression, trail building, and forest revegetation—the Colorado Climate Corps is the brainchild of Lieutenant Governor Dianne Primavera and will be managed by the nonprofit Colorado Youth Corps Association and staffed by AmeriCorps, which is spending $1.7 million to fund the program. Climate Corps workers, who must be at least 17-and-a-half years old, will be stationed throughout the state to improve the health of public lands. Considering the wildfire crisis in Colorado, the corps’ most immediate mission will be fire mitigation. Teams led by the participating organizations will thin forests and remove dry brush and fallen branches that blazes consume for fuel.

But Jeremy Bailey, the director of prescribed fire training for environmental advocacy group the Nature Conservancy (which is not involved with the Colorado Climate Corps), says those strategies alone don’t meet the urgency of the moment. “Sure, the climate corps will definitely help with wildfire mitigation,” Bailey says, “but we need a mirror image of crews focusing on igniting and managing prescribed fires.” Corps members won’t be trained to perform prescribed burns, and the firefighting crews that are qualified could be busy containing blazes.

Despite these concerns, U.S. Representative Joe Neguse is pushing for the Colorado Climate Corps to become a national model: At press time, President Joe Biden’s proposed Build Back Better bill outlined a plan to revive FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, but with a climate focus. “The need for bold, urgent climate action,” Neguse said in a press release, “is exactly why we’ve been working to put people to work restoring our lands, tackling Western wildfires and the climate crisis.” But will it be enough to contain the inferno?

Conservation Calculations

How the Colorado Climate Corps measures up to FDR’s crew.

Photo by CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

172: Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Colorado in the 1930s. Anywhere from 50 to 250 men were stationed at each. In comparison, the Colorado Climate Corps will employ 240 workers total.

$63 Billion: Amount, in today’s dollars, that Roosevelt spent over nine years on the Civilian Conservation Corps. AmeriCorps is funding the Colorado Climate Corps via a one-time $1.7 million infusion, which it received as part of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan that passed this past March.

3.5 Billion: Trees planted in the United States by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, earning it the nickname “Roosevelt’s Tree Army.” It’s unclear if the Colorado Conservation Corps will add to forests, but current plans point to no.

This article was originally published in 5280 December 2021.
Sarah Lamagna
Sarah Lamagna
Sarah is an ecologist-turned-freelance writer specializing in the outdoors, environmental education, and advocacy.