by Hannah Dixon, '06, '07
Let’s play a quick round of word association. When I say Student Conservation Association or SCA, what comes to mind?
You might come up with phrases like “student work crews.” National parks. Environmental preservation. Trail rehabilitation. And you would be correct. But as I finish up my third SCA conservation internship, I feel I must make a small confession. As an SCA intern, I have never rehabilitated a trail, built a fence, removed invasive species, or performed any act of environmental preservation beyond picking up a few pieces of litter.
Surprised? Horrified at my boldness in publicly admitting this brazen mockery of conservation? Before you pick up the phone to call SCA and demand they remit my living allowance, allow me to introduce you to another side of SCA: cultural heritage preservation. SCA assists the National Park Service in protecting and preserving culturally important historical sites such as Civil War battlefields and presidents’ homes. SCA volunteers work alongside park rangers at these sites to educate the public through programs and tours.
In the three months I worked at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park as an interpreter for SCA, I encountered over 60,000 visitors. While there, I provided programs on the park’s bio-diesel shuttle buses and led educational tours on the modern Civil Rights movement. I found that while most people have heard of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), few know of its roots at Harper’s Ferry. In 1906, a group of brave men and women known as the Niagara Group, led by W.E.B. DuBois, held the first NAACP meeting on U.S. soil. Throughout the summer, I taught park visitors about how the Niagara Group strove for social justice and equality. Without SCA interns, programs such as these would not have been available.
Before beginning my second SCA internship at Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Georgetown, I was somewhat apprehensive. It was not the prospect of wearing period clothing (been there, done that). And though I had no prior boat crew experience, the boat did not make me nervous. It was the mules. I had never worked with livestock of any sort. Ever.
Wouldn’t you know? The first boat crew position I learned was “Back Mule.” Just like the boating families who worked the canal during the 19th and early 20th centuries, I learned how to harness the mules, what vocal commands to give them, and that they prefer grass to hay but banana peels trump both. I educated visitors about this piece of American culture that otherwise would have disappeared along the Potomac in 1926. I quickly learned that without SCA interns to help, the boats at Georgetown and Great Falls would not run. This important tale would be lost without students conserving America’s cultural heritage.
Now in my third SCA internship, I am serving in the National Park Service’s public information office in Washington, DC. What exactly am I preserving here? Everything. American history, nature, culture, and land. Through my contact with the public, I am helping to shape the way the National Park Service is viewed by the American people and the world.
With the next generation’s shrinking interest in the great outdoors leading to decreased visitation, are the American people telling us that national parks are no longer necessary? If they are no longer coming to visit, we must no longer be reaching them, touching them, or moving them. And that is what I am doing here. I am conserving the image of the National Park Service, helping the American public find a new sense of ownership for their parks.
One of the first things I learned when I started interning with the National Park Service is that all of our national parks belong to all Americans. I had never thought of it that way. I own Mt. Rushmore. My parents own the Grand Canyon. My 19-month-old nephew has stock in Gettysburg, Cape Hatteras, and the Statue of Liberty. Which parks do you own?
Photos: Top: Hannah and Nel, the mule, at Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park; Bottom: Hannah rides Ellie, the mule, along the canal.