View from the Director's Chair

Robert Stone

Multi-tasking as a producer, director, writer, editor, and sometime cameraman, Robert Stone has developed an international reputation over the last 20 years, with a range of unique and critically acclaimed feature documentaries about American history, pop culture, and the mass media. He spoke to KQED about his work on the new film Civilian Conservation Corps.

When you decided to pursue filmmaking, did you know you wanted to make documentaries?

I actually thought I'd be cinematographer, or make fiction films. But the first film I directed (Bikini Radio) was a documentary, and it was nominated for an Oscar. So that set me on my path. And I've been happy with that path ever since.

How did you become involved in the Civilian Conservation Corps film for American Experience? When did you begin working on it?

After I finished Earth Days [a film about the history of environmental movement from 1950 to 1980, coming to PBS in April 2010], American Experience producer Mark Samuels suggested I make a film about the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was a natural follow-up to Earth Days.

We made the film rather quickly. We began in March 2009 and wrapped up in August. It's structured around four veterans of the CCC—who are wonderful old guys—aged 89 to 92. They're like your favorite grandfathers. And because the Conservation Corps had its own film production unit, we have amazing original footage of the program.

How much did you know about the Civilian Conservation Corps before you started making the film? Were you surprised by anything you learned while making it?

I didn't know much. I knew that it was a jobs program from the 1930s, but that's about it.

I suppose the biggest surprise was the degree to which the Great Depression was caused by a huge environmental crisis. Most folks think that the Depression was a result of the financial crisis and the stock market crash of 1929, and that the Dust Bowl just happened to happen. But the Dust Bowl was man-made crisis, not a natural phenomenon.

Immigrants to this country thought the land was unlimited. They would till until it the soil was ruined, then move on. The crisis of erosion and overuse was nationwide. The amount of soil blowing into the ocean could load a series of boxcars wrapping around the world seven times!

The Dust bowl was actually one of several environmental crises that hit this country at same time. FDR established the Civilian Conservation Corps both to put people to work and to address these natural disasters.

The Corps's accomplishments were amazing. They planted 2.3 billion trees (that's half the number of trees ever planted in the country's history), saved topsoil that would cover the equivalent of the entire state of California, and created 300 state parks.

Do you think there's a need to revive a version of the national Civilian Conservation Corps?

I think there is. Certainly one thing that came out of the CCC was a spirit of national service. Bringing so many into a national service corps was beneficial. It put young people back to work, but also trained them and educated them so they could re-enter the workforce. It was a win-win on so many levels.

Given our current state of unemployment and the Obama administration's push toward energy conservation, we are crying out for a similar program. If I were president, I'd certainly promote it!

How big of a role do you think the Civilian Conservation Crops played in the emergence of the modern environmental movement?

The Civilian Conservation Corps was this country's first environmental organization. It really set the stage. You had 3 million people who participated over 9 years. Most of them went home with real sense of the need for conservation, a love for the outdoors, and respect for natural resources.

They took their families to national and state parks and imparted their love of the environment to their children. It was their children who started the environmental movement. There was a direct connection.

  • The 1930s: Civilian Conservation Corps
    Airing on KQED 9HD Monday, November 2, at 10pm

  • The 1930s: Surviving the Dust Bowl
    Airing on KQED 9HD Monday, November 16 at 10pm

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