Fifty-nine years ago, an extraordinary seed began to grow. It was nourished by young people eager to give back to nature, serve their communities, and help protect our national parks. And that seed was planted by SCA Founder Liz Putnam.
“Liz is a pioneer,” says Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “I think we can consider Liz to be the mother of the student conservation movement.”
Since the ﬁrst group of SCA volunteers reported for work at Olympic National Park on June 24, 1957, more than 80,000 young people have joined the ranks of “the next generation of conservation volunteers,” defending forests and wildlife, restoring ecosystems and watersheds, and providing environmental education and outreach to millions nationwide.
Conservation began here at SCA 59 years ago this week. Join us as we celebrate SCA Founder’s Day, June 24th, and recognize Liz and her legacy.
SCA Founder’s Day
Monday, June 24: Fifteen young woodsmen, representing such far-ﬂung places as Boston, Chicago and Englewood, N.J., were welcomed to Olympic National Park today as the pioneers in the entirely new Student Conservation Program.
On this date in 1957, SCA (then known as SCP) launched the American youth conservation movement, and we commemorate June 24th each year as Founder’s Day to honor SCA Founding President Liz Putnam.
Beyond its name, SCA has evolved significantly over the past six decades – introducing landmark urban conservation programs, award-winning career initiatives, groundbreaking youth development platforms – but one thing that has remained constant is the Crew Journal.
Perhaps surprisingly, these are not handwritten notebooks like those maintained in later years. Rather, the 1957, ’58 and ’59 journals are all typewritten and stapled together down the left-hand side. The era’s prose has a Hardy Boy-like ring to it, with phrases like “we swapped yarns” and “couldn’t have happened to a sweller guy!” One passage recalls a day of rappelling on the Olympic oceanfront: “All of us had taken pictures as we hung out over space. Golly wow!”
Invariably, the crews showcased their work. The ’58 volunteers restored the Humes Ranch Cabin, which back then was already close to 60 years old and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Before they could replace the wood shakes on roof, they had to remove the originals, “showering dust and rats’ nests on those below.”
Another team repaired the trail to Strawberry Bay. “We finished the switchbacks down the hill and built some steps and a bridge. By the time we were ready to leave, the weather had started to clear up and tourists were christening our trail on the way to the beach.”
Many a page is devoted to life in the wilderness, as Olympic’s diversity formed a near-alien world for most participants. Their dairies list touchstone sites including the Elwha River, Whiskey Bend and Boulder Lake, as well as vivid descriptions of their surroundings.
Wrote one: “Tall hemlocks and spruce come all the way around the edge of the sea, and there are hundreds of small islands just off the coast which are similarly attired.” Added another: “The stars twinkle through the tall stands of fir, as the breeze rustles the needles, and one more never-to-be-forgotten day passes forever.”
Supplies were packed in on “Zorro, a gray burro, and Satin, a black Welsh pony.” Nights were “made exciting by pantry raids by local bears.” Days were passed by singing “Mountain Dew and Sloop John B,” years before the Beach Boys turned the latter tune into an anthem.
Crews often obsessed over food, which happens when you spend weeks removed from burger joints and pizza parlors. Macaroni monotony set in quickly, trout fishing became a late afternoon tradition, and fresh watermelon deliveries spurred raucous celebrations.
But mealtime could also pose risks. According to a 1957 entry, on an August morning after breakfast, “Joe obediently deposited some trash in the fire and learned, after being hit in the face by the lid of an egg can, that cans should be punctured before being placed in the fire where heat expands the air and a mild explosion occurs!”
Rangers and other experts would regularly visit camp to provide instructional lectures. But one night in ’58, the crew hosted some very special guests.
“At dinnertime, a party of notables arrived: Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Olympic National Park Superintendent Daniel Beard, a Port Angeles newsman and others. Justice Douglas spoke to us about mountains and the Himalyas…and we saw mountain goats on the valley wall across from us.”
Justice Douglas was about to lead numerous conservation luminaries on a 22-mile hike along the Olympic coastline to protest a proposed highway project through the area. Among those joining the hike were Howard Zahniser, who would later author The Wilderness Act, writers and activists Olaus and Mardy Murie, and a young woman who was just making her mark in conservation: Liz Putnam.
As each crew came to a close, their journals turned universally wistful. Year after year, members forged bonds with the land and friendships with one another. The final chapter in their journals turned a poignant page on their lives.
The words in one diary seemed to speak for all. “Everyone fondly hopes to return next year to reap once more the great harvest of knowledge and woodsmanship to be taken from beautiful Olympic National Park.”
SCA 1957 – Olympic National Park
The diary of the first-ever SCA crew tells of “15 young woodsmen” who built a new trail along the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, “swapped yarns” and vied in “glissading marathons” in their off-time. Then 16-year old Eliot Putnam started his journal exactly 57 years ago today. Eliot would go on to travel the world with the Peace Corps, CARE, Pathfinder International and the National Council for International Health (where he served as president) promoting family and reproductive health programs in developing countries.Read more
It was 1958, when our family affair with the Student Conservation Association began. Since, then our family has continued its commitment to improving the world around us through SCA.Read more
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See SCA’s 59-year timeline here
Liz Putnam receives Citizens Medal from President Obama
Student Conservation Association (SCA) founder Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam receives the Citizens Medal from President Obama at the White House on Wednesday, August 4th, 2010.
In 1954, Liz (Cushman) Putnam grew alarmed by naturalist Bernard DeVoto’s warning that our national parks were in danger of being “loved to death” by an avid American people. In an article, DeVoto provocatively recommended closing the parks and surrounding them with Army guards until Congress appropriated suﬃcient funding.
As history has proven, Liz had a better idea.
Sixty years ago, she proposed a “Student Conservation Corps” (SCC) in her senior thesis at Vassar College. The paper – 39 typed, double-spaced pages – earned an “A.”
Awards and Honors
SCA programs, staff, and members have received a number of awards and honors acknowledging the powerful work we do across the country, locally and nationally, to protect our outdoor spaces and empower our future leaders. Below is just a sampling of these honors.
2014 The Walden Woods Project’s Environmental Challenge Award
SCA received the Environmental Challenge Award for engaging youth in hands-on conservation service and serving as a model for those who seek effective, constructive and sustainable outcomes. The Walden Woods Project and Thoreau Institute were founded by rocker Don Henley.
2014 Golden Halo Award
SCA and American Eagle Outﬁtters – signature sponsor of our ongoing Alternative Spring Breaks (ASBs) – won the Golden Halo Award from the Cause Marketing Forum for our 2013 ASBs at Big Cypress National Preserve and Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
2010: 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal
SCA founder Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam was bestowed this prestigious award by President Barrack Obama for “performing exemplary deeds of service for her country and fellow citizens.” She was the ﬁrst conservationist to receive the Citizens Medal, the nation’s second-highest civilian award, since its creation in 1969.