How did the Sea Ranger Service start?

13 Oct 2023 | Dan Benham

Cutting-edge innovations are increasingly at the heart of fixing our environmental problems. But what if the answers we seek to lead us to a sustainable future could instead be found in the past? This is exactly where the idea to begin the Sea Ranger Service came from. 

Taking inspiration from a US government initiative devised almost 100 years ago; the Civilian Conservation Corps (the CCC), the Sea Ranger Service takes our social and environmental mission inspiration directly from this initiative. 

Let’s look back to that time and examine exactly what the CCC was, how it started and the inspiration we take from it today. 

A new deal for the American people

It’s 1933 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is about to be inaugurated as 32nd President of the United States. ‘FDR’, as Roosevelt had become popularly known, is seen by many as a welcomed saviour in the turbulent and frightening times the U.S and the world at large is facing.

The country is in the midst of its biggest economic recession. After markets crashed in 1929, over 13 million turned unemployed within a couple of years; roughly one in four working citizens are left jobless. The nation has slumped into a collective depression as abhorrent poverty and starvation have become the new norm.

Roosevelt set out to rigorously reform the country’s federal institutions and soon new government-run work programmes would quickly be created to alleviate unemployment. These programmes hailed the start of a new era that saw improvements to the lives of millions of the poorest Americans. At the same time, it marked the start of the biggest ever changes to the U.S. environmental landscape through human intervention.

Restoration of the landscape was a priority for FDR’s administration. By the early 1930s, the country did not only face social-economic collapse, it was also forced to confront major environmental issues at the same time. Centuries of unchecked deforestation had caused river banks to weaken with devastating floods as a result. Fish populations in rivers were decimated and the country was also witnessing an uncommon level of wildfires. As well as this, intensive agriculture had caused half the U.S. landmass to experience various degrees of soil erosion. In previously farm-rich regions such as Michigan, thousands of farms had been abandoned by early 1930s as the land had become unproductive, leaving large swaths of the state as barren. On top of that, there had been growing concerns for white pine blister rust; an unforgiving disease killing off trees in great numbers. Add to this the escalating infestations where swarms of grasshoppers descended onto farmed fields of corn or oats only to destroy them entirely within hours. By the time Roosevelt came to power, widespread alarm had been raised over the ‘earth disease’.

The challenges faced by the new president were two-fold: revitalise not just the nation’s economy but simultaneously restore farmlands, kill off grasshopper infestations, eradicate tree diseases, replant forests, restock rivers, tackle wildfires and repair eroded riverbanks. No small task but Roosevelt saw an opportunity and eagerly set out to launch what became, and remains to this day, the largest environmental conservation programme in history.

CCC recruitment poster, 1935

Roosevelt’s Tree Army

Thousands of unemployed young men were mobilised within weeks to set up the first CCC camps. Enrollees were young men between the ages of 18–25 that were willing to work and on the condition they send $25 of their $30 monthly pay, back home. They would work at CCC camps to earn, save and alleviate the economic hardship of their families.

Within two years the CCC established 2,912 camps. CCC ‘Boys’ as they became known were soon involved in all types of conservation work; from running tree nurseries and fish hatcheries to planting trees, fighting wildfires, eradicating diseased woodland and relocating wildlife. The work was coordinated by army officers and LEMs; Local Experienced Men, often foresters. CCC Boys quickly took on more than just conservation related tasks, including assisting in natural disaster relief, bringing food to communities cut off during blizzards and flooding. There was also an extensive operation to fight forest fires. For rural villages, nearby CCC camps soon proved a vital economic lifeline as local trade and tourism grew.

In a ‘fireside chat’ which was broadcasted on May 7, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt discusses the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corp.

Attention was also given to personal and intellectual growth. After each day of physical labour, evenings at the camp were filled with vocational training to improve the men’s job perspective. At its height, over 100 different classes were on offer in the CCC, including mechanical engineering, carpentry, welding, gardening, typing and financial budgeting. Classes were not mandatory but attendance levels were typically over 90%.

Young CCC recruits follow a typing class, Virginia, 1933

By 1937, the US economy was back on its feet, but World War II was looming. Over the coming years the number of camps was scaled back and programmes wrapped up. The CCC ran until 1942 when the US entered the war and Congress discontinued funding. Many CCC recruits transitioned straight into the army, with many serving in Europe or the Pacific.

CCC Legacy

The Civilian Conservation Corps may not be as familiar today as it once was but as the largest conservation programme in history, its legacy is nonetheless profound. A total of 2.3 billion trees were planted by CCC Boys over a nine year period, 12 for every American living through the Great Depression and accounting for half of all trees ever planted in the nation. Tree diseases were successfully eradicated and trees treated by the CCC were found to grow 38% taller and 50% wider compared to the growth rates of only a few years earlier.

By 1942, the programme had constructed 3.116 fire lookout towers and laid 88,000 miles of telephone lines, greatly speeding up communications to fight wildfires more effectively. Over 75 million fish were reared in hatcheries to replenish rivers and overall 118 million acres of the American landscape were directly altered, conserving natural resources and establishing a network of 800 national parks. Meanwhile, a total of 3 million men served in the conservation corps, with at one point twice as many working in rural areas under the CCC banner than were in the entire US Army.

CCC boys relocate beavers from a ranch to a forest watershed location to help conserve the local water supply. Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho, 1938
CCC Boys relocate beavers from a ranch to a forest watershed location to help conserve the local water supply. Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho, 1938.

The parallels between the 1930s and today are stark. The world faces a climate and ecological crisis that uproots global security and economic resilience. Even more alarming is the growing evidence of the direct influence of climate change and deforestation on the emergence of infectious diseases such as COVID-19. There is an urgent need for modern-day, work focused conservation solutions to regenerate nature and the CCC history has the power to inspire us to pursue more socially-focused approaches to environmental conservation.

The CCC example proves that putting job opportunities at the heart of green policies can bring prosperity and a renewed sense of pride and identity to communities. This matters especially today, given the high rates of youth unemployment in coastal regions and the desperate situation in poverty-stricken coastal communities that find themselves increasingly on the frontlines of climate change.

Present day CCC inspiration

Fast forward to today and this is where the Sea Ranger Service aims to pick up where the Civilian Conservation Corps left off; by putting young people from coastal communities in a position to take on much needed ocean conservation work.

The Civilian Conservation Corps planting red pine seedlings, Michigan, 1939.

In 2009, a group of scientists concluded that across the globe there was only enough capability to monitor and protect 9% of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). By combining a social and environmental objective the Sea Ranger Service is able to provide a tangible and much needed service for these areas, plus so much more ocean conservation related work. With every new Sea Ranger trained up and each purpose-built Sea Ranger ship constructed, the capacity is increased for conservation, just like the CCC about a 100 years ago. 

Moreover, as individual Sea Rangers gain experience, receive qualifications and transition into a maritime career, they gain more life opportunities. The real impact will be felt far away from just the conservation strategy and instead at a local community level.

The conservation work that planet Earth needs can and needs to be so much more than just technological based solutions. Boots on the ground are vital and with the Sea Ranger Service, we hope our approach to protecting oceans, is a fitting tribute to the amazing legacy of the CCC Boys on land.