Learning From the Earth

The Student Conservation Association Builds Lifelong Environmentalists

In 1955, Vassar College student Elizabeth Putnam had an innovative idea for her senior thesis proposal. Her project, modeled after the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps (which put vast armies of young Americans to work on environmental projects), would organize high school and college students around the country in a voluntary workforce to protect the nation’s natural resources; at the same time, students would be encouraged to consider careers in conservation. Her professor was intrigued, but skeptical. Putnam recalls, “He told me these were good ideas I had, but asked if I had two years to give to them after I graduated.” She laughs, “Now, if he’d asked if I had 42 years to give…”

Student Conservation Association volunteers work on environmental projects like stream and fisheries restoration.

Today, as honorary founding president and an active member of the Student Conservation Association (SCA), Putnam has indeed put in over four decades of extra credit. “I grew up with the feeling that the land is a trust,” she says. “If anything needs to be done, no matter what it is, don’t assume someone else is going to do it for you.”

Putnam practices what she preaches. Her one-time senior project is now the organizing force behind an annual posse of more than 2,000 high school, college and adult volunteers working to conserve national parks, forests and wildlife refuges. Students team up with natural resource management agencies such as the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as state and private groups, including The Nature Conservancy. Some 75 percent of SCA’s funding is provided by conservation agencies; a healthy membership base of 23,000 and contributions from public-spirited corporations and foundations make up the balance.

According to Bob Holley, SCA’s vice president for development, there’s nothing glamorous about this form of volunteerism. “They really get out into the back country and work hard, building bridges or constructing miles of trails-it’s absolutely amazing what these young people can do.” Projects include revegetation and site restoration, fisheries and stream restoration, and wildlife habitat improvement. SCA volunteers can be seen hauling brush, stacking stones and planting trees year round from Wyoming’s Yellowstone to Hawaii’s Haleakala.

But our national parks aren’t the only beneficiaries. The students benefit two-fold: “For one,” says Holley, “They learn the value of volunteer environmental service work. Second, they learn environmental education and a conservation ethic.” That’s important, he says, “because part of our mission is to create lifelong stewards of the environment.”

Elizabeth Putnam’s one-time senior project has become a force of more than 2,000 high school, college and adult volunteers working to conserve national parks, forests and wildlife refuges.

Providing plenty of opportunity to get hands dirty are the U.S. Department of the Interior’s AmeriCorps; the Wilderness Work Skills Program; the High School Conservation Work Crew; and the New Hampshire Conservation Corps. SCA’s resource assistants—professional and semi-professional volunteers—help agencies in jobs as varied as archeological surveys and trail work, to the nuts and bolts of geographical information systems. The Conservation Career Development Program (CCDP) recruits minorities for positions lasting up to six years. This program, says Holley, is SCA’s answer to the “lack of diversity in the conservation community, reflective of our population as a whole country.”

But SCA isn’t only about creating professional environmentalists-there’s room for personal growth as well. According to Jay Satz, the association’s director of field operations, “They learn how to get hired by an agency to work on a trail crew, but they also get a real in-the-face lesson on limited resources. By the time they get back home, their views and values about how long to run the water to get it cold or to brush their teeth have really changed-sometimes in hilarious ways.” One student was so enthusiastic about water conservation that “his parents complained he was sneaking off into the bushes to pee.”

Another student, Keith Nyitray, left his home in Queens, New York to join SCA. He began work in Utah’s Bryce Canyon having never donned a backpack. Later, he joined a high school program in the North Cascades and eventually wound up in Alaska’s Denali National Park. Far away from native pavement, Nyitray fell in love with the last frontier. He built a homestead 180 air miles from the nearest road, raised a wolf dog named Smoke, and took a job on the Iditarod sled dog race. One day he determined the rugged expanse between the Yukon and the Bering Sea had never been hiked, and he decided to make history. A 1994 issue of National Geographic features Nyitray the “Arctic Explorer”—without tent or support, accompanied by Smoke—and the tale of his trek across Alaska.

SCA also gets glowing reviews from the nation’s park rangers. “SCA is a wonderful program,” says Steve Sarles, the supervisory ranger at Yellowstone National Park. “It’s a great opportunity for students to get on-the-ground work experience in the park system.” Stephanie Hall, a seasonal employee at Zion National Park, knows about SCA’s value first-hand. “It’s a great way to get hands-on experience you can’t get at school,” she says. Past members of the SCA team can be found plugging toward graduate degrees in the sciences, as well as working full time with the same agencies that sponsored them as students. For those Earth-wise graduates not sure where to go after SCA, the association provides career resource services through publications like Earth Work magazine.

The jobs these students ultimately take will showcase ideas generated during their time with SCA. No one should be surprised if the next revolutionary notion about the environment comes from an SCA graduate.