The Student Conservation Association Turns 60 Part 2: A Look Ahead


In Part I , we discussed how Liz Putnam founded the Student Conservation Association in 1957, and how the organization developed and flourished in subsequent decades. In the second of this two-part series, we will look at the how SCA has faced the challenges of the new millennium and explore how new initiatives will ensure the organization’s place as a leader in the conservation and environmental movement in the decades to come.

Diversifying for the Future

In 2007, SCA celebrated its 50-year anniversary and recorded its 50,000th volunteer. Only ten years later, the number of alumni has swelled to 85,000. As the organization has grown, it has also evolved, adding new initiatives and expanding well beyond the borders of the national parks.

Long a pioneer, in 2010 Liz Putnam became the first conservationist to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal. At a White House ceremony , she was honored for “helping to ensure that America’s public lands and nature treasures are safeguarded for future generations.” And drawing inspiration from its founder, SCA remains at conservation’s cutting edge, offering a wide range of opportunities in both rural and urban settings.

Conservation in the Internet Age

Along with incredible advances in technology, the internet age brought fears of a growing estrangement between youth and nature. In this context, SCA’s hands-on philosophy of “green” over “screen” proved to be more relevant than ever. As members of the digital generation, SCA students found increased value getting outside and forming friendships in parks, towns, and cities across the nation, providing on-site conservation work and pitching in to mitigate the damage caused by natural disasters.

In fact, this latter activity became an area for growth in the new millennium, with the SCA becoming a nationwide leader in eco-recovery after its success helping to restore Yellowstone National Park after forest-fire devastation in the late 80s. Subsequently, its “ecological cavalry” was deployed in Mount Rainer National Park after record flooding in 2006, the Angeles National Forest after the worst wildfires in history gripped Los Angeles in 2009, the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and national park areas in New York and New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy in 2013.

A snapshot of the Greater Yellostone Recovery Corps.

An SCA volunteer helps to clean up after Hurricane Sandy in 2013

Tackling Climate Change

A key focus of the SCA’s expanded efforts lies in the area of climate change. Since 2008, Sustainability Fellows have been working together with local governments, businesses, non-profits, and community organizations in the Pittsburgh area to create and implement climate action plans.

These projects take the form of trainings, presentations, service projects, and educational programming on a range of topics, including climate science, sustainability, green building – and even such practical issues as conflict mediation and grant writing. In one year alone, SCA fellows helped cut carbon emissions by 2,865 metric tons, reduce water usage by 100 million gallons, and conserve some $1.5 million worth of energy.1

An SCA Sustainability Intern checks a rain barrel.

Building off the success of the sustainability-fellows program, SCA recently teamed up with the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) to help determine how climate change is affecting our ecosystems. Through soil sampling, insect capturing, and a study of invasive species, volunteers will work side-by-side with scientists in the field in order to compile a database that will be available to universities and other institutions. As of this year, SCA interns are already active in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, Alaska, and the Midwest.

Expanding Urban Access

Conservation – and the camaraderie and love of nature that it fosters – must not be the exclusive provenance of those who have the means to visit and volunteer in our national parks.

In inner cities across the country, SCA volunteers are busy at work turning urban landscapes into flourishing gardens. In Houston, an SCA crew will be partnering with the Green Institute to revitalize a fruit orchard at Herman Brown Park. Urban farms are also up and running in a dozen cities more, including Seattle, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Oakland, empowering some 2,000 under-served youth in the process of reshaping their own neighborhoods.

SCA volunteers clean up an urban garden.

Conservation can change neighborhoods – and lives. In Chicago, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan is launching the Emerson Collective, designed to help at-risk youths transition from the streets into stable employment. Transitional jobs include conservation and community work, and he SCA will be one of three partner organizations for the program.

On the younger side, SCA is targeting a school-age audience with its Urban Tree House program, which provides environmental education to K-12 youth in Chicago and Washington, D.C. While learning about their local ecosystems, students engage in projects that help beautify their parks, establishing a sense of ownership and pride. By teaching children about the environment in an immersive, local setting, SCA is helping establish lifelong conservationist values.

The Urban Treehouse Program in Chicago.

Conservation Without Borders

The environment is a legacy for people of all backgrounds, regardless of what zip code we happen to be born in – and SCA is committed to bringing conservation opportunities and environmental education to young people who might never otherwise be able to step foot in a national park. In a time of rapid climatic change, it is our responsibility to ensure that everyone has the chance to participate in the enjoyment – and stewardship – of this planet we all share.

1Lives and Lands: Celebrating 60 Years of the Student Conservation Association, p. 58.

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Student Conservation Association