A Conservation Visionary At Last Honored By Obama Today


Empowering an army of students to conserve and repair the nation’s landscapes…

by Jess Leber August 04, 2010 09:19 AM (PT) Topics: Environmental Activism, Forests, Wildlife

The year was 1955, long before national service had a model in the Peace Corps, and more than a decade before Earth Day even existed.

Liz, then a senior at Vassar College, read a magazine article detailing how America’s woefully underfunded national parks were falling into disrepair, as visitors trampled the lands while rangers lived in 1930s-era shacks. The article’s author proposed closing parks such as Yosemite until funding improved. Liz’s response — a 36-page double-spaced senior thesis — outlined her vision, instead, to empower an army of students to conserve and repair the nation’s landscapes.

Today, President Obama will honor Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam for building that early vision into a hugely successful reality. She is one of this year’s 13 Presidential Citizens Medal winners and the first conservation leader to ever win the nation’s second highest civilian award.

To me, it’s pretty certain that without the work of the Student Conservation Association she founded, with its 60,000 alumni and 4,000 annual student participants, the nation’s parks, forests, refuges and seashores would be far worse for the wear. It’s about time a president recognize a conservation leader for this prestigious medal — a natural for Obama, since he already planted trees with the SCA this year to mark the passage of a landmark national service bill.

Beyond the group’s hugely important mission, I think its wild success has something to do with the fact that it’s actually pretty awesome to work for conservation. The job descriptions are seriously pretty sweet. Who wouldn’t want to track grizzly bears in Wyoming, build a bridge in Idaho’s national forests, or restore Florida’s Everglades after a hurricane? That this is appealing to young people underscores why it’s so important to make sure the Everglades exist for the next generation to enjoy.

Today, I honestly doubt whether that’ll be the case. A cavalcade of interrelated threats face our lands and wildlife: climate change, sprawl, invasive species, and energy development, to name a few. Yet the situation for the National Park Service hasn’t much changed since Liz read about it in 1955. NPS faces a woeful backlog of “deferred maintenance” estimated at almost $9 billion dollars. Every year, its budget runs a shortfall of $600 million, making the existing problems worse and making it that much harder to respond to new challenges. Despite a boost of economic stimulus cash, Obama’s budget freeze is far cry from solving the problem because national parks always seem to feel the pain first, according to National Parks Traveler.

You can help Liz Putnam and the SCA in their mission to promote a  “culture of public service” for America’s lands. Sign this petition to the U.S. Senate to support the Public Lands Service Corps Act, which will expand a federal program to employ youths 16-25 in public land and national park conservation projects. In this time of high unemployment and challenges for national parks, it makes amazing sense to support a bill that would help both.

A Conservation Visionary At Last Honored By Obama Today

Student Conservation Association