Remarks at State Parks Youth Corps Dinner

October 21, 2010

Thank you all for an insightful and inspiring discussion.

We are here tonight to honor a select group of young Missourians.  Men and women who stepped forward this summer to take a challenge:

A challenge to serve; 

A challenge to lead;

A challenge to make Missouri a better state – a more beautiful state – for generations to come.

To appreciate the full significance of our State Parks Youth Corps, we need to turn back the pages of history – to a time when another group of young people endured heat and cold and sacrificed blood and sweat to enhance the natural beauty of our nation.

Those young people belonged to the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The year was 1933.  For four years, our country had been ensnared in unimaginable economic turmoil.  One-in-four Americans was out of work.  Hunger and homelessness swept the nation.  For millions, the future offered little hope.

Meanwhile, unchecked industrial expansion had scarred the face of America.  Factories blackened America’s cities under permanent shrouds of soot and ash.  And problems like erosion and deforestation were stretching the limits of our natural resources.

America needed a change.  Leading naturalists, including the famous John Muir, championed the idea of preserving public lands for the public good.  And because of their efforts, a new system of national and state parks was beginning to take root.

And then came a landmark announcement from a new president:  America was forming the Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew that America’s woodlands and waterways were a priceless treasure – one to be safeguarded for posterity.  Roosevelt also knew that he needed to put people – lots of people – back to work. 

Those new parks would be the perfect place to do just that.

Roosevelt’s vision was clear.  Putting young people to work in the parks would pay dividends for both the present and future generations.  In the short term, young people would earn a fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work.  They’d share that money with their families.  And that spending would help jumpstart the stagnant economy.

Over the long term, hundreds of thousands of young workers would help erase the scars of industrialization, by building trails, constructing shelters, preventing fires and planting trees in every corner of America.

Most importantly, those young folks would benefit from what Roosevelt called the moral and spiritual value of work.  After a long day, they’d sit down by a fire; reflect on their struggles; and know that by sheer will, grit and determination, they were building the future.

President Roosevelt understood the truth you and I both know: There are some lessons only nature can teach – about life, about self-reliance, about our place in the world. 
That’s one of the reasons the First Lady is chairing our Children in Nature Challenge – a community initiative to get kids across Missouri reconnected with the outdoors.

Together, the young people of the CCC rebuilt America’s natural landscapes, and America’s economy, with their heads, their hearts and their hands. 

At the same time, working in the parks rebuilt the members of the CCC … by giving them a sense of purpose; a sense of mission; a sense of pride.

At the height of its nine-year history, more than 600,000 Americans were enlisted in the CCC – with thousands stationed here in Missouri.  Their legacy lives on today. 

In the trails they cleared and the forests they planted; and in the 247 buildings and 95 structures they erected in our state parks.

We also see that legacy in the more than 1,000 young people who labored and toiled and earned a living as part of the State Parks Youth Corps this summer.

The young workers of the State Parks Youth Corps stand on the shoulders of their forbearers in the CCC.
As the National Association of State Parks Directors noted when they honored Missouri with their president’s award this year, the State Parks Youth Corps was the greatest influx of labor and energy and determination into our parks since the 1930’s.

And, as we heard tonight, their accomplishments were truly impressive:

  • From repairing and blazing hundreds of miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails;
  • To developing educational programs and leading tours;
  • To preserving and enhancing remote wilderness areas;
  • To repairing and painting buildings that hadn’t been maintained in years

The State Parks Youth Corps was an unquestionable success – both in terms of the work we accomplished at our parks and, more importantly, in the lives we changed.
The First Lady and I had the privilege of meeting many of these young people during our visits to parks throughout the summer.  We saw them work.  We saw them learn.  And we saw them grow.

For many of these youth, this summer opened a whole new chapter in their lives – a first job, a first paycheck, a first boss.  Roosevelt hit the nail on the head when he said the greatest benefit of the CCC would be the change in the workers – not in the parks.

The CCC came to an abrupt end in 1942.  After Pearl Harbor, defending freedom and defeating tyranny became the nation’s first – and only – priority.

But the members of the CCC didn’t stop working.  Many immediately enlisted in the armed forces.  Others went to work in factories, or took their skills into other facets of the war effort.

Today, we call those Americans the greatest generation.

When their country asked them to serve, they did so willingly and without question.  In the 1930’s, they rebuilt our parks and jumpstarted our economy.  In the 1940’s, they defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

That same strength – of values, of spirit, and of character – lives on today in the young men and women who served in the State Parks Youth Corps.  When others spent their summer on the couch, on the computer, or on the streets, the “spicy kids” worked hard.

They got up before sunrise, and kept working after sunset.

They got sunburns on their arms, blisters on their feet, and a few cases of poison ivy.

Day in and day out, they learned a timeless lesson: Few things worth doing are ever easy.

Because of the leadership shown by the Division of State Parks;

the support offered by the Division of Workforce Development;

and the dedication and involvement of Missouri’s outstanding Workforce Investment Boards, these youth will enter our workforce with sharper skills, stronger habits, and clearer sense of purpose.

And when they’re called upon to lead and to serve, whether on the job or for our country, they will be ready.

And so, this evening, I thank the leaders of Missouri’s 14 local Workforce Investment Boards; the superintendents of our state parks and historic sites; and all the interpreters, naturalists, maintenance supervisors and other park employees who made the first year of the State Parks Youth Corps a resounding success.

And I ask you to stand with us again next year.  We have formed an incredible partnership that is producing tangible results – for our economy, for our parks, and for the youth of Missouri. 

This year, we began a transformation.  But the goals we set for the State Parks Youth Corps weren’t something we could accomplish in just one summer.  We need to continue our efforts next year, and in the years to come, to build a legacy of excellence and service.

In the coming weeks, Julie Gibson, Bill Bryan and their teams will begin reaching out to follow up on today’s working session and to start the recruiting process for 2011.  I ask that you share your ideas, suggestions, comments and criticisms openly and honestly.   We need input from everyone around the table.

More than 75 years ago, Franklin Roosevelt had a vision.  To preserve America’s natural beauty.  To enhance our parks.  To boost an ailing economy, and build leaders for tomorrow.

We are the keepers of that vision today. 

The State Parks Youth Corps builds on the legacy handed down by the CCC, to ensure the future of conservation and recreation in Missouri:   

A future where Missouri families can enjoy a beautiful October day along the Katy Trail;

A future where young people can try to outsmart a trout in a crystal-clear stream at Bennett Spring, Montauk, or Roaring River;

A future where young men and women can take pride in their trails they’ve built; the brush they’ve cleared; and the tradition they have continued.

These are the treasures of our Missouri State Parks. 

And these are the treasures we can, we must, and we will protect as we continue the State Parks Youth Corps next year.

Thank you.  And good night.