Burlington Free Press
It began as a last-ditch proposal for a senior college thesis.
Two years later, in 1957, Shaftsbury resident Liz Putnam founded the Student Conservation Association, a nonprofit auxiliary to the National Park Service. It wasn’t easy, Putnam remembers — but it was an adventure she wouldn’t trade for the world.
The Arlington, Virginia-based youth environmental leadership program brings hundreds of volunteers every year into woods, wilderness, parks and urban green spaces as an investment in a sustainable future.
The SCA grew out of some fundamental human needs, Putnam said. She elaborated over the course of an hour-long phone interview, speaking in an accent reminiscent of clipped, mid-20th century movie dialogue. Putnam, 82, sounded upbeat, tireless. Her story begins with an upbringing in what was, during World War II, a remote corner of Long Island, New York.
Our conversation follows, edited for length and clarity:
Burlington Free Press: What was your family doing on Long Island?
Liz Putnam: My dad was a design engineer at Grumman (Aircraft Corporation). I always thought as a kid that meant he ran a train. The amazing thing is — both parents had serious physical challenges. My dad had been a tremendous athlete before the First World War. He came back out of it having been gassed. He survived, but he eventually had to have four-fifths of his tummy removed.
My mother was born as a one-pound preemie with her twin. This was back in 1900, back before they had all these wonderful medical facilities. But heaven save us; we had Dad, who loved the out-of-doors, and Mom, who had grown up in it.
They were so resilient. Even with some of their incredible health challenges, with them it was: “You just kind of move on. If you need to do something, if something needs to be done, you do it — regardless of what health or shape you’re in. There’s plenty that can be done, no matter what shape or condition or where you’re from — but do it.”
BFP: What about Long Island informed your love of the outdoors?
LP: We lived at Sands Point, near Port Washington. In those days, in the 1930s and ‘40s, it was very rural. I could walk my goat — even going into the post office. You wouldn’t recognize it today. As little kids, during the Second World War, we were running around in the fields and the woods and so forth. We just had a couple acres of land but all around us there were all these several hundred acres. They weren’t ours, but they were there to enjoy. And nothing was being built on them because it was during the war
That’s why the family moved out. They said, right after the war, “We’re moving out — because it’s not going to last like this forever.”
But as kids, it was a marvelous opportunity. And I loved animals. It seemed that whenever somebody had a critter they didn’t know what to do with, it ended up at our place.
I took care of a skunk that needed help. I don’t recommend that as a house pet – and I don’t want anyone to think that, Oh goody, I can go out and collect myself a skunk. It wouldn’t be fair to the critter. But it had been rescued under somebody’s cabin as a baby, and it wouldn’t have lived out of doors by its little self. But nobody wanted it. This little guy wouldn’t have survived. I got bitten a few times, but that goes with the territory.
BFP: Did you move after the war?
LP: Not immediately. But beginning in 1946, when I was about 13, our family started going on camping and horseback trips in Canada. We would take a sleeper train and get out at 3 in the morning; it was a whistle stop in the middle of the Quebec north woods. We were met there by these marvelous Indian guides. It would take us a couple of days to canoe and hike to Dad’s log cabin. We never saw another soul. You ate the fish that you caught. It was incredible.
BFP: So you fished?
LP: Oh, I did. You had to, if you wanted to eat.You learned how to fly-fish. You only fished for what you could eat. You’d catch a four- or five-pound trout on a fly.
That stillness, the quietness, the beauty of wilderness has stayed with me forever.
BFP: What drew you to horses?
LP: It started with an accident in 6th grade. A stupid accident. I was on a see-saw playing ‘trust’ – you put your feet up on your seesaw because you trust your friend. I was up in the air and my friend was down on the ground; and all of the sudden she decided just to get up. And I went down, and I hit it just wrong. I just couldn’t move. My legs just went kaput. Well it kind of mushed my back. I was in bed for awhile. I kept asking the doctor when I could move again. And the one thing I really wanted to badly is to ride horses. My dad was an old cavalry officer when he chased Pancho Villa down by the border, before the First World War, down on the border. He said it was great — nobody got hurt.
I asked the doctor, “Can I ride horseback?” and he said it might be the best thing to strengthen your back. So my dear parents – guess where we went, but out to Wyoming. I did that for several summers. That riding really brought my back back. I even helped with the spring roundup. Heavens, but when I thought what my parents had gone through – this was nothing. They showed me you can work through any different adversarial problem.
BFP: How did Vermont figure into your work?
LP: My family moved to Shaftsbury and bought a farm there when I was 17, between high school and college. It was an extraordinary opportunity to bring some of this land back into shape, which is what Dad wanted to do. I feel very lucky. I’m still living in our home here, in this wonderful old house built in the late 1700s, which Mom lived in after Dad died.
BFP: Did you pursue any formal training in conservation?
LP: The winter after we moved to Vermont, I went off to college, to Vassar. It was great — the first year I was there they had this brand new interdepartmental course put together by plant science, zoology and geology. It was called “conservation of natural resources.” This was back in 1951. t was incredible, particularly in those days. It was right down my alley. The man who had put that course together was my faculty adviser. This wonderful man — Dr. A. Scott Warthin Jr. — one of the gems of this earth. He was head of the geology department. He made it all possible for me to be what I gathered was a guinea pig. He was one of the reasons I was able to write my thesis.
BFP: And what was your thesis?
LP: It was on a proposal for a student conservation corp. That’s where it all started. In 1953 in my junior year. I was doing some reading in Harper’s Magazine there was this wonderful article by Bernard DeVoto. I think it was December but I won’t swear to it. It proposed we close the National Parks. It was after the war, and the budgets were nothing. Our rangers were living in tar-paper, leaky shacks built years earlier by the old CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). They were temporary shacks. And here were these people still living in them with their families. Their jobs at that time was to clean latrines and pick up litter. There wasn’t any time for interpretive work and the other stuff.
DeVoto said let’s close Yellowstone; let’s close Yosemite. The large parks. Put the army around them. Tell people they can’t come into these parks until Congress awakens to the fact that these parks are gifts for the future. They’re not ours to destroy. They’re there for the future generations. They’re ours to care for – that’s why they were set up.
I just wanted an opportunity — I just had this bug in my head — I just wanted to find out if there’s a need: Is there a way of doing something to help our beloved national parks? This is why I’ve always felt this program was meant to be — not because of me — but because there was a need.
Then fast-forward. A friend joined me on this little toot: Marty — Martha — Talbot, who graduated a year ahead of me. We went out west under a very low budget because we were going to be totally on our own expense. So off we went. The first night we were in Olympic National Park (in Washington). And the superintendent said, “Share with me your concept.” And so I shared with him the concept. He said if you’re looking for a trial project, count on Olympic. First park, first night — that’s how things started.
Marty and I have stayed friends all these years. We were real teammates. She joined me in all these national parks, thinking we’re just going on this little camping spree, and it turned out to be a four-year camping spree.
BFP: How did you decide to focus on the needs of young people in conservation?
LP: As John Muir used to say, get the eyes of the person open; because once they’re open they never get shut. The average today for unsupervised outdoors is eight minutes. And it is eight hours on electronic equipment. If people of whatever age don’t give a damn about the out-of-doors – other than “Oh God what is there to do out there?” or “Hey something is in my way!” If they’re not involved mentally and/or spiritually to realize what it is about, we’re not going to have the out-of-doors.
BFP: It sounds like this turned into a full-time job for you. Does being outside ever feel like work?
LP: I don’t consider it work when I go outdoors. I love just being there. Seeing the birds or going on a hike or shoveling snow or camping. Anything. To be out there with the stars and the moon — I mean it’s spectacular. How lucky can we be? But we’re not going to have it if we don’t have clean air, clean water. And that takes all of us.
BFP: Are teenagers really that helpful to the larger effort?
LP: To see and meet these kids! They come in and talk eloquently about what they’re doing, and with passion — about the importance of being involved. It is phenomenal. Now there are more than 4,000 kids a year entering the SCA and almost 80,000 who have been in this program.
BFP: Hats off to you, Liz.
LP: Hats off to everybody. That to me is what’s extraordinary thing about this. One person doesn’t do it. It’s the teamwork. It’s the people who become interested and involved. It’s the students. It’s the U.S. Park Service. Sure, you get bopped on the head many different times — there were naysayers. I mean, it was back in the day when we were told we couldn’t have girls in the high school program because “Girls couldn’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t.” It wasn’t until 1969 that we finally had gals in the program. And that first program was here in the Merck Forest, here in Vermont. From that time on they’ve all gone co-ed. People grew up.
You also heard back then of rangers saying, “You’re not thinking of having women as interns, are you? — because can you imagine anything funnier than a woman in a park ranger hat?” Well, I could imagine things funnier. And we did have women as interns in that first year in 1957 and many of them became park superintendents, and rangers and naturalists with the Service.
BFP: What might summarize your life work with the Student Conservation Association?
LP: When you give of yourself, you can’t help but gain — because you’ve opened yourself. You’ve opened yourself to whatever’s going to come popping in. And if you’re involved in something with people who are equally positive and wanting to do something, then pooey! — you go ahead and do it.
BFP: Sounds like a good motto.
LP: Well it is. Because it works.
See the article in the Burlington Free Press…