What The Conservation Of National Parks Teaches Us About Ourselves

The Huffington Post
Tuesday, July 5, 2016
by Jaime B. Matyas, President & CEO, SCA
 
As the National Park Service marks its 100th Anniversary this year, it’s a natural time to celebrate the majesty, heritage, and stunning beauty of our national parks. It’s also a time to focus on what it takes to conserve those parks and what we gain by doing so. Recent research shows that conservation efforts benefit those involved in far greater ways than might be expected.
 
As summer begins, thousands of young people are heading out to parks and forests to volunteer in conservation efforts across America. They will build trails, restore habitats, and ensure that these lands are strengthened and preserved. It’s not surprising that these students will feel more connected to nature and more committed to conservation values. As President Obama said when he visited Yosemite last month, the park “changes you by being here.”
 
Recently, the nonprofit Student Conservation Association (SCA), which I lead, worked with the Search Institute to explore the impact of conservation work on students who perform it. The research revealed that SCA participants develop an array of personal skills – the ability to express ideas, a sense of purpose, openness to challenge, perseverance, and awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, among others. They also experienced significant gains in their ability to work collaboratively – to take the perspective of others, work as part of a team, and engage others to reach a goal. And they became more civically involved, with an enhanced sense of responsibility for the greater good, a heightened consciousness of the interconnectedness of their choices and the world around them, and a deepened connection to their community.
 
These are all skills and attributes that help prepare individuals to thrive in their private lives, in their communities, and in the world. They are also qualities that position participants to be more effective and influential conservation leaders.
 
Perhaps most encouraging, these skills are imparted in a relatively short period of time. Typically, SCA crews are comprised of two experienced leaders and eight crew members age 15-19. Crews serve for approximately one month during summer vacation at sites ranging from national parks to urban neighborhoods.
 
The implications of this research are substantial, because it demonstrates that individuals can gain meaningful personal skills and traits in a matter of weeks through conserving our nation’s parks. What could be more encouraging than that? And what more appropriate time to demonstrate it than such a major milestone for our National Park Service?
 
The centennial is a time of re-commitment – to our parks, to their preservation, and to their expansion into communities that have been historically under-served. It’s a time of re-engagement – involving more people and new generations in conservation. It’s a time of recognition of all that parks bring to our lives – enhancing beauty, providing respite, and sharing a sense of wonder.
 
Part of the wonder is that park conservation doesn’t just benefit the parks; it strengthens the communities around them by generating tourism and jobs, and it builds vital skills that produce more self-aware collaborative individuals committed to enhancing the public good.