The Student Conservation Association Turns 60: Part 1 A Look Back


In 1953, a twenty-year-old Vassar College junior named Elizabeth Cushman (now Elizabeth Putnam) had a life-changing experience. On a visit to the Grand Teton National Park, she saw the Northern Lights – the spectacular sky show produced by the collision between solar particles and the Earth’s atmosphere. “To be in those mountains and to hear the sizzling and the crackling…and to see them shooting forth in different colors is something I will never forget,” she recalled many years later.

So moved was Liz by the experience that she became determined to find a way to give back to the national park system. But how? In the 1950s, America’s parks were going through a very difficult period. On one hand, federal funding, slashed during the war, had not been fully restored. On the other, baby-boom families were keen to use the new interstates to get out into nature. Underfunded and overrun, the parks were in such critical condition that writer and historian Bernard DeVoto even suggested that they be closed until they could be properly restored.

The 1950s: A Different Time

After reading DeVoto’s piece, Liz’s thoughts began to gel. During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt had launched the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program to provide jobs for unemployed young men in the conservation of public lands. The CCC had proven overwhelmingly popular, sparking a surge of interest in the outdoors. Why couldn’t a new program be built on this model, but with student volunteers?

After devoting her senior thesis to fleshing out the proposal, and armed with a letter of recommendation from conservationist Horace Albright, Liz began visiting park staffs to generate interest. At her very first stop, Olympic National Park, the superintendent offered to host a trial project. By 1957, some 53 students were working in two national parks. The Student Conservation Association (SCA) had been born.

SCA Founder Liz Putnam at Vassar College

The 1950s were a different time. The civil rights, women’s, and environmental movements were still a ways off, and the National Park Service was dominated by men. For a young woman to launch a program that would bring young people of both sexes together in conservation efforts was a remarkable achievement.

From the beginning, the work of SCA volunteers was both varied and challenging. Trail-building was a primary activity, but volunteers also took internships with park biologists and naturalists. Margaret Mary Meagher, who was to become Yellowstone’s first woman biologist and a renowned authority on the American bison, got her start in this very way. SCA became an effective incubator for developing nature-related vocations in youth; indeed, surveys show that 70% of SCA alums go on to study or work in the environmental field.1

The first SCA crew at Olympic National Park

At the Forefront of Diversity:

The Student Conservation Association has been at the forefront of diversity since its inception, pushing to provide conservation opportunities to people of all backgrounds and cultures. It hasn’t always been easy. In the early days, SCA founder Elizabeth Cushman (Putnam) signed letters to her benefactors as “E. Sanderson Cushman” in order to avoid gender bias. And when Liz expressed her wish that the SCA could be a gateway for women to work in the parks, a male staffer scoffed, “Can you imagine anything more silly than a woman in a ranger hat?”

Thirty years later, the National Park Service named Liz an honorary ranger and presented her with a hat of her own. And today, in 2017, SCA is a force in towns and cities across the country, harnessing the creativity and diversity that is our nation’s strength in the cause of protecting its ecosystems and environment.1

The 1960s and 70s: Evolution in a Changing Society

In 1964, SCA was incorporated as a non-profit, just in time to confront the turbulent years that lay ahead. In 1968, it launched its first strategic recruiting initiative aimed at involving more people of color in conservation efforts. While protests raged on college campuses and city streets, lifelong multi-racial friendships were forged in the fields and forests of America’s parks. Meanwhile, SCA’s reach was spreading, from the Acadia National Park in Maine to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee to the Dixie National Forest in Utah.

The founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 further advanced Americans’ environmental awareness, with participation in the SCA tripling by 1975. And its effects were sending ripples, with both the Youth Conservation Corps and the National Park Service’s Volunteer in Parks programs founded on SCA’s model. This was also the decade that saw SCA bring its work into inner cities through its Urban Youth Program. Washington, D.C.’s C&O Canal was the site of the first urban project, and the program quickly spread to San Francisco and Denver.

The first urban crew, at the C&O Canal in 1977.

The 1980s and 90s: Expansion and Alliances

SCA continued to expand its network in the 1980s, forging alliances with the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service, while also expanding its youth program to Cleveland, New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.

In 1988, SCA launched its largest project ever: the three-year Greater Yellowstone Recovery Corps, designed to restore the park from the forest fires that had devastated a third of its 2.2 million acres. This was to open a whole new chapter for SCA, with the organization subsequently deploying volunteer corps for other natural disaster areas from coast to coast.

In the 90s, SCA formed its first military alliance with the U.S. Navy, opening 14 million acres of land owned by the Defense Department to conservation work. And in 1994, it became a proud partner of the AmeriCorps national and community service program. Meanwhile, thanks to a series of private-sector partnerships, it was able to expand its summer-only Urban Program into a year-round initiative, in addition to expanding to the cities of Oakland and Seattle.

In our next post , we will discuss how SCA grew into the 21st century, as well as looking ahead to its new range of projects and partnerships in the areas of environmental education, climate change, urban farming, and more.

1 Lives and Lands: Celebrating 60 Years of the Student Conservation Association, p. 37.

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Student Conservation Association