Building the Next Generation of Conservation Leaders

By Dale Penny

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If I told you of a human-made environmental crisis so widespread that it threatened many of the places we hold dear, a dilemma that has spurred controversial commentaries from those in the media and divergent responses from government, you’d say I was referring to climate change. And you would be wrong.

Much like climate change, however, this threat is hard for the average person to see and even more difficult to understand.  And it started over 60 years ago.

That’s when writer Bernard DeVoto penned his infamous column, “Let’s Close Our National Parks,” in Harper’s Magazine. The post-war Baby Boom was well underway, families were flocking to national parks, and DeVoto called for closing these public lands before they are “loved to death.” 

A Vassar College student was so alarmed by this notion that she used her senior thesis to propose a better idea: a Student Conservation Corps modeled after the old Civilian Conservation Corps. Upon graduation, Liz Putnam spent two years pursuing her concept and, in 1957, the Student Conservation Association (SCA) was born.

As a young person, Liz saw a solution and that solution was other young people, united in service. Liz started a movement, as over the years nearly 75,000 SCA members have helped to protect our national parks, state forests, and local communities, and many more have volunteered with the youth corps that followed.

Twenty years ago, when AmeriCorps was launched, SCA signed on as a founding partner. Over the past two decades, close to 18,000 young people have strengthened our environment through SCA AmeriCorps national service programs. 

A Partnership for the Planet

Yet even as we commemorate this historical milestone, we are looking to the future.  A just-released United Nations report states climate change is affecting every corner of the globe.  At the same time, consumption is climbing and young people are routinely disconnected from nature.

That’s why we annually deploy 1,500 SCA AmeriCorps members to hundreds of locations across the United States, from the edge of the Arctic Circle to the Florida Everglades.  These young people understand the stresses our ecosystems and communities are under and want to ensure the planet they pass on is far healthier than the one they’re inheriting.

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In Idaho’s Salmon-Challis National Forest, for example, SCA AmeriCorps members trek hundreds of miles up and down steep slopes in all sorts of weather to inventory forest conditions and update maps dating back to the Ford administration.  In the words of one member: “The mountains hadn’t changed much but mapping technology sure had.”

In Manchester, NH, our members have provided imaginative environmental education lessons to more than 12,000 public school children since 1994 – an entire generation of students.

There is no doubt that my kids learn from the lessons,” says teacher Carolyn Tartsa, “but more importantly, the SCA AmeriCorps members are role models in the truest sense – young persons the children can respect, admire, and aspire to be.”

Thanks to these dedicated young people, our partners are able expand their reach, educate more students and visitors, complete more conservation projects, and see greater and more lasting impact. In fact, 90 percent of SCA AmeriCorps projects would not have happened without the member’s service – and the impact doesn’t stop there:

  • 95 percent of alumni say that their SCA AmeriCorps experience transformed them.
  • 87 percent of members enjoy a stronger connection to the natural world.
  • 65 percent of employed alumni are working to create a more sustainable planet.

SCA and AmeriCorps are instilling an ethic of service and stewardship in young Americans from all backgrounds, building the next generation of conservation leaders.

Dale Penny is president and CEO of the Student Conservation Association.

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