In Conservation, Youths’ Actions Speak Loudest

SCA
Tuesday, March 27, 2012

by Dale Penny, President SCA

Editor’s note: Many in the conservation community responded with a collective “Oh, really?” when recent reports indicated young people today don’t feel the same imperative to act on behalf of the environment as previous generations. News accounts referred to a “particularly steep decline” in Millennials’ stewardship, citing a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. SCA President Dale Penny presented a counterpoint in EarthShare’s newsletter, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald, Kansas City Star and other papers have since endorsed the SCA perspective. Read Dale’s original column on the eco-contributions of Millennials and join the conversation on Facebook.


by Dale Penny, President, Student Conservation Association

A recent study purports that, based on four decades of youth surveys, Millennials are less inclined than Generation X or Baby Boomers to protect our environment.

I frankly have a hard time buying that.

When comparing generations, it must be noted that 40 years ago, Earth Day was brand new and the idea of being an “environmentalist” was considered rather radical. Since then, views and practices have changed significantly. We no longer take for granted resources like clean air and water, and most Americans practice at least some degree of conservation. It’s part of a modern lifestyle and young people often don’t feel the need to report these actions – they just take them.

Ironically, as this new study broke, SCA was hosting a record number of college students in nationwide “alternative spring break” programs at national parks across America. The leadership example set by these and other outstanding young stewards provides an important counterbalance to the Millennial study.

At Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, 30 college students spent their spring break reforesting a burned-out hillside and pulling invasive plants “as big as Saint Bernards” according to one participant. “During one particularly miserable dig,” recalled Jonathan Shafer, an Auburn University grad student, “two of us took turns hewing our way through what felt like solid rock. After half an hour’s work, we managed to dig a hole 18 inches deep, just big enough to settle a new Joshua Tree. As a group, we repeated this task 105 times over several acres of the burn site.

“None of us really wants to go back to school,” Jonathan continued. “But we return home with a new respect for natural spaces, our impact on them, and the importance of maintaining them for future generations.”

Taylor Holan is a first-year student at John Carroll University in Ohio, who joined an SCA crew in the Everglades to remove noxious Brazilian pepper plants from the park’s infamous Hole-in-the Donut. In our wired world, Taylor believes conservation service prevents nature from “getting lost among all those gigabytes floating around.”

“I’m here,” she notes, “to learn as much as I can in the Everglades – about ecosystems, threatened species, restoration plans, and more – and share that knowledge with anyone willing to listen. When someone has a passion for something, it’s contagious, and I plan on infecting everyone around me.”

In an op-ed column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, SCA’s Timarko Mitchell, a student at UA Pine Bluff, wrote eloquently about why he applied to NPS Academy, a workforce diversity program jointly sponsored by SCA and the National Park Service designed to prepare underrepresented students for park careers. “Our national parks, monuments, battlefields and historic sites are permanent gifts to our country, touchstones of a common legacy. In many ways, they represent the soul of America. I look forward to helping other people—young and old, of all colors and cultures—celebrate our diverse national heritage.”

Timarko closed his column by noting the newest national park is the memorial in Washington, D.C. to Dr. Martin Luther King, and then quoted King as saying “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” Timarko’s message is hardly that of a disengaged Millennial.

As national service surges in popularity thanks to waves of young adults who seek only to only give back, conservation is consistently among their top priorities. When federal officials conducted their recent America’s Great Outdoors listening tour, they asked young people what they most wanted from government. The answer: more service and career opportunities in national parks, forests and other public lands. And as summer approaches, SCA is looking at yet another all-time high in applications.

I’m sure there is much to be learned from those 40 years of surveys but over the past 55 years, more than 65,000 young men and women have protected nature through SCA and many more have served with other corps.

Young people’s actions speak for themselves.