Let me know why compulsory national service is a bad idea


Writer and historian Wallace Stegner called our national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than at our worst.”

That was the message of the recent Ken Burns series that aired on PBS (www.pbs.org/nationalparks), and I couldn’t agree more.

Watching this 12-hour documentary brought back memories of my own visits to national parks that span more than three decades.

Parks are sick

Despite the afterglow of the series, however, the truth is our national parks are sick. Our 391 national parks, monuments and reserves are heavily used and under funded.

In 2006, the national park system hosted 272,623,980 visitors and operated with an annual budget of less than $2.5 billion. And according to a recent story in the Christian Science Monitor, there’s a maintenance backlog of $8 billion.

The Park Service is one of those agencies gets lost in the shuffle when many budget line items cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars. It seems a shoddy way to treat “the best idea we ever had.”

I understand the demands placed on the federal budget by politicians, taxpayers and all governmental agencies, so maybe it’s time to reach back to the future for a great idea.

Civilian Conservation Corps

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (www.ccclegacy.org) as part of his “New Deal.” It enrolled its first worker just 37 days after FDR’s inauguration.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was FDR’s civilian army charged with restoring heath to the nation’s natural resources that had been decimated by the Dust Bowl. In the midst of the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps put able-bodied, unemployed young men to work.

From 1933 to 1942, Civilian Conservation Corps workers planted 3 billion trees and built thousands of roads, bridges and fire towers. They fought forest fires, worked on flood control and soil control projects, and worked in forests to restore wildlife habitat and improve forest recreation.

Revisit the concept

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the concept of national service. Though experts tell us the recession is over, high unemployment will continue for an indefinite period of time. So let’s require two years of compulsory national service for all.

Qualifying service would include the military and other existing programs such as the Peace Corps, VISTA, AmeriCorps and the Youth Conservation Corps (a current National Park Service program for youth 15-18). And let’s resurrect the Civilian Conservation Corps for individuals who would prefer to have their service address conservation problems.

Recruits could be deployed to national, state, county or city parks to do all kinds of work.

Though compulsory registration for the military draft ended in 1973, it was reinstated in 1980. All 18-year-old males have since been required to register with Selective Service since then, so the infrastructure of such a program is in place. Simply expand it to include all 18-year old women. And service would also be open to older adults who wished to volunteer.

How to implement

There are many ways such a system of compulsory service might be implemented. One would require two years of service between the ages of 18 and 26. High school graduates could choose to serve immediately, go to college or enter the work force for a few years.

College students could serve three months each summer and have only 12 months of service remaining upon graduation. Some positions might require a college education. All workers would be provided with room, board and health care, and upon completion of their service, each would receive a $20,000 stipend to get on their feet in the real world.

In addition to the manpower, mandatory national service would provide to involved agencies other benefits which might be even more important. It would engage the 18- to 26-year-old cohort in meaningful work and open private sector jobs to older workers.

It would instill a work ethic in young people who are probably are unfamiliar with the phrase. And upon completion, workers would have acquired real world experience and confidence in knowing what they are capable of doing.

Tell me why I’m wrong

This all sounds great to me, but I admit I’m wearing blinders. Tell me why I’m wrong, and why compulsory national service is a bad idea.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.


  1. Scott, you ask:

    “Tell me why I’m wrong, and why compulsory national service is a bad idea.”

    It’s is not just a bad idea, but a truly evil one.

    It is immoral because my life is my own, to do with as I see fit. If you have ever read the Constitution, then you should be aware that every US Citizen possesses the unalienable rights to their life, liberty (freedom of action) and property. Neither you, nor any other individual or group has the right to determine how I direct my life and dispose of my resources of time, energy or money, just as I have no say in determining how you conduct your life. Also, please take a look at the 13th Amendment, as Kris points out:

    “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States …”

    Just because our rights and the 13th Amendment have, and continue to be violated by our government, this is not a justification for further abuse.

    A society based upon liberty is one where all individuals interact with one another through voluntary exchange. A society base upon force is totalitarian, with dictators setting the terms and slaves following the orders. When you see these issues in these terms, I hope you will choose the path of freedom and the preservation of individual rights.

    See my website for a much fuller discussion of this very topic.


    C. Jeffery Small

  2. Holding up the CCC as an example of compulsory service is wrong. The CCC was not compulsory – unless you consider that for some it was enroll or starve.

    That said, the CCC was the best program of the New Deal.

  3. I agree that the CCC should be resurrected, especially during the current financial crisis. It would solve part of the under/unemployment problem and address the conservation and park maintenance work backlog in the country. However, Smitty is correct; the CCC was never compulsory. It was also the most widely bipartisan supported program of the New Deal. The selection criteria for volunteers was that they were on the relief roles. They were required to send $25 of their $30 per month stipend to their families. Such requirements would not work in today’s society. However, with revisions to suit modern times, a new CCC could be a useful policy tool and a potentially valuable solution for unemployed youth. While we all found many faults with this article, the underlying idea has merit and should not be summarily dismissed.


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