Conservation jobs offer varied experiences and opportunities


By Gerry Rising

I suspect that this is going to be a tough time for school and college students seeking summer employment. With formal records indicating one out of ten adults out of work and the real situation even worse, competition for the declining number of jobs available will certainly be fierce.

Here is an alternative. Visit the Student Conservation Association (SCA) website,, and look for a volunteer opportunity. Only some of the positions offer salaries but many provide room and board, travel expenses and some additional amenities.

There are five types of program: community programs and national conservation crews for students aged 15-19, conservation corps and conservation internships for those over 18, and field leaders for those over 21.

The activities include everything from clearing trails in the Adirondacks to serving as a nature interpreter along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that follows the Potomac River west out of Washington, D. C., from invasive plant control in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore northeast of Chicago to office work at the Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland, from habitat restoration in Arizona’s Grand Canyon to working in the Juneau, Alaska Forestry Services laboratory.

While some of the positions require good physical condition, others are open to handicapped individuals.

I had an interesting conversation about SCA service with Sarah Welch, University at Buffalo professor Claude Welch’s daughter, about her experience in this program. After her graduation from Brown University Welch traveled through Europe. While there, she told me, she was constantly asked what America was like. “I didn’t know what to say,” she told me. “All I knew was Buffalo and Providence.”

So on her return to the United States, she decided that she needed to visit more of this country. When she learned about SCA from a friend, she applied for an internship in the North Cascades National Park in Washington.

She was chosen for a team of three interns led by a professional biologist to do botanical surveys and transects in the park. Although she had a scientific background, Welch knew no botany but she learned quickly on the job. She described her experience as intense and transformative. Knowing none of her colleagues when they set out, now 24 years later they still communicate regularly.

Hers was intensive work, some of it hard, some of it lonely, but she came away from that experience knowing what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. Welch and her husband now both work for that same North Cascades National Park, her husband as a geologist, she as a part time professional contracting officer while her children are young.

There are, it seems to me, a number of benefits that derive from this kind of volunteer work. Participants gain the satisfaction of contributing to our nation’s welfare. They add a significant entry on their personal vita. And, perhaps best of all, they do something different, breaking out from what has come for many young people today to be a confined life. (I should talk; I find myself chained to this computer.)

Welch described what interns in the North Cascades have to do. They camp where they are working, even leaving their cell phones and radios behind when they set out. I can imagine that is like a drug user going cold turkey. Here in the East, of course we don’t have those remote wilderness opportunities, but there will still be some withdrawal symptoms for participants.

How do you apply for this kind of job? You simply visit the SCA website, read the general information about the program and then explore the list of openings. When you have found one for which you wish to apply, fill out the application forms. These are evaluated by the supervisory staff of the specific project. If they are interested in your application, they will interview you by telephone and, once the selection process is complete, inform you of their decision.

© 2010 The Buffalo News

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