Learning from the Earth: The Student Conservation Association Builds Lifelong Environmentalists

By Hayhurst, Chris | E Magazine, September-October 1997 | Go to article overview

Learning from the Earth: The Student Conservation Association Builds Lifelong Environmentalists


Hayhurst, Chris, E Magazine


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 conservations. 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. . ."

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 twofold: "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."

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. …

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