Student Conservation Association (SCA) founder and Vassar College alumna Elizabeth Titus “Liz” Putnam will come full circle with her alma mater on September 11-13, 2013, when a corps of more than thirty-five SCA volunteers from throughout New York State will team up with dozens of Vassar students and professors – plus staff from the Hudson River Estuary Program’s “Trees for Tribs” initiative – for three ambitious days of conservation work on the 530-acre Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve.
Liz Putnam launched the American conservation service movement in 1957, when she began SCA and enlisted student volunteers to assist with the upkeep of U.S. national parks on the model of the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps. In doing so, she brought to life a concept of volunteer engagement with public spaces that she had first developed for her senior thesis in geology, which she completed to graduate from Vassar in 1955.
More than 55 years and 70,000 participants later, SCA is not only a stalwart presence in national parks but also a potent partner with other federal, state and local resource management agencies around the country, helping to protect endangered species, conserving urban green spaces, and restoring landscapes ravaged by wildfires and floods including recent restoration work on national parklands ravaged by Superstorm Sandy (http://www.sandy.thesca.org). In 2010, Liz Putnam became the first conservationist to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal – the nation’s second-highest civilian award (created in 1969) – when President Obama presented it to her at a White House ceremony.
The SCA team works in partnership with AmeriCorps, the national service initiative, and the Vassar project will help mark 20 years of collaboration between SCA and AmeriCorps. The main activity of the three service days will be planting upwards of 1,100 trees to reforest a 5-acre section of the Farm and Preserve, a living laboratory for natural science education and research that Vassar also maintains as a public open space. The land was earlier home to the college’s working farm, which provided food to the campus.
Only tree varieties native to the region will be planted, and the new trees will be counted on for three key reasons: to provide a seed source for the Farm and Preserve and surrounding areas, to help buffer two adjoining streams, and to more largely help the forest become more resilient to the effects of climate change. Vassar senior and biology major Carrie Perkins helped to develop the tree planting plans after she studied vegetation and soils in the area.
The combined SCA and Vassar volunteers will also remove the invasive climbing Oriental bittersweet vine from a 15-acre section of the Farm and Preserve where it grows most densely and detrimentally. This initiative was recommended by 2012 Vassar graduate Sara Gabrielson, an Environmental Studies major, as a result of her research on invasive plant species in forests. Further plans for the three days include repair of several miles of public trails popular for walking, hiking, biking, running, and bird watching.
The Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve activities will form one of SCA’s signature service projects in conjunction with the annual September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance program, which will also engage SCA volunteers in New York City, Washington, DC, Pittsburgh, PA and elsewhere around the country.
“SCA was founded in the spirit of service and stewardship, and in this case we will serve to honor the memories of others,” states Kathy Schmidt, director of the SCA Hudson River Valley Corps. “To return with Liz to Vassar, where her vision for engaging young people in service to nature originated, will make this an especially meaningful commemoration.”
All of the trees for this reforestation initiative are being provided through the “Trees for Tribs” (as in tributaries) program of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which engages volunteers in restoring streamside buffers through tree planting. The program provides landowners and local governments with low-cost or no-cost native planting materials and free technical assistance, focusing on comprehensive watershed restoration – to protect against storm and flooding events, as well as protecting property, water quality, fish and wildlife (http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/43668.html).
“DEC’s Trees for Tributaries program is proud to partner in this great community and environmental service project with the Student Conservation Association,” said DEC Commissioner Joe Martens. “Volunteers working with the Trees for Tribs program are a key component in ensuring its success. Since its start, Trees for Tribs has provided thousands of trees and shrubs to municipalities and private landowners for qualifying projects in the Hudson River Estuary watershed. These trees serve as a valuable resource in helping restore damaged banks of streams, tributaries and rivers damaged by storms and subsequent flooding.
Liz Putnam will visit with, work with, and address the combined SCA volunteers and Vassar students over the three days. SCA intern and 2012 Vassar biology graduate Elise Heffernan will oversee the Farm and Preserve project. Many Vassar students will participate through related courses (“Earth Science and Environmental Justice”, “Gender and Nature”, “Conservation Biology”, “Ecology”), while others will be representing their field hockey, rugby, lacrosse, swimming and diving, and cross-country teams. Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential, liberal arts college founded in 1861.