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Solutions in Sight: Environment

Student Conservation Association

Student Conservation Association

"...changing lives through service to nature"

A Conversation with
Liz Titus Putnam
December 1997

The Student Conservation Association (SCA) is an organization that matches student volunteers with conservation projects on public lands. SCA grew out of a college thesis written by Liz Putnam in 1955. Since 1957, with trial projects in two national parks, SCA has grown to an organization whose donor members have provided more than 30,000 young people with opportunities to improve the physical environment while transforming themselves. Recently, Liz was honored with several national awards in recognition of over 40 years of commitment to young people and the environment.

 

Liz Titus PutnamThe InSite: Your life's work has been to connect young people to the land and in that way these people and the land have benefitted so much. Where did you develop your deep love for Nature?

Liz: I grew up on Long Island in the 30's and 40's. There were wonderful fields a child could romp in. I also loved critters. Anyone who had a critter they didn't know what to do with would always ended up at our house.

TI: What books did you read when you were growing up?

Liz: I was not much of a book reader, other than what I did at school. I was a good student, but I wanted to be out doing things. I would burst into tears, if I'd be reading things like "Lassie" or anything where a critter was getting hurt.

TI: So, unlike a lot of today's young people, who live in cities, you obviously didn't need stories to spark your imagination of outdoor worlds.

Liz: I had my own outdoor world.

TI: And your sense of determination, where did that come from?

Liz: My parents! My father had been badly wounded in the First World War. He had 4/5 of his stomach removed, but he was never a quitter. And my mother weighed one pound when she was born back in 1900, before all these unbelievable things that are done today [to help premature babies]! There were parts of her that weren't there (protective layers to the skin) so she had her own little challenges. So I was brought up with this feeling "If there are things to be done, you don't back out of doing them. Physically or mentally you can work out ways to do it, if it needs to be done."

TI: You saw some work that needed to be done and you started the SCA (Student Conservation Association). How did that come about?

Liz: My freshman year at Vassar College I took an interdepartmental course in Natural Resources. It was a mixture of plant science, zoology and geology. The college was talking about offering opportunities in interdepartmental majors and I thought "Oh great! I'd like to be an interdepartmental major in Conservation!" They said, "Oh, no! You can't do that!" Maybe they were talking about an interdepartmental major between French and English or something! [Laughing] But in the meantime when I took that course [on Natural Resources] I got so excited about all these other things too. During my sophomore year I was finally able to become a Conservation interdepartmental major. In the fall of my junior year I read a magazine article by Bernard DeVoto which basically said our [national] parks were being loved to death. There weren't enough rangers and naturalists to take care of them. There were too many visitors and we must do something to protect the parks from the people, and the people from the parks! [DeVoto] felt the American public was not being awakened to this real challenge. So he suggested "Why don't we just put the Army around Yellowstone Park and tell the visitors that they can't come in until adequate funding is found?"

"...our [national] parks were being loved to death."

SCA volunteersTI: He was only kidding, wasn't he?

Liz: He probably was. But I didn't know what was going on and it certainly awakened me! He said there must be some way to protect these very fragile, unique, remarkable parts of our American heritage.

TI: So what was your idea?

Liz: I believed there was a lot of work that needed to be done on our national park lands that could be done by young people who wanted to give of themselves for a certain period of time. And if there were a program that was hard to get into, then you'd get people who really wanted to do this. There were no service organizations for young people to give of themselves. And what an opportunity to do something that couldn't otherwise be done! A person would gain from this opportunity... living in Yellowstone or the Tetons! I thought, if I'm going to be majoring in this, interdepartmentally, I would like to really study this type of an opportunity, to see if there was such a need.

TI:What was your first step?

Liz: I went to the other department heads - zoology and plant science. And each of them said "What a great idea! But you're really majoring in our department and only minoring in the others so you're going to have to fulfill all of our requirements first. And then maybe you can think about what you're talking about. "I wasn't going to have a chance to even look at what I was thinking about, which I thought was a true interdepartmental Conservation major! When I went to see my advisor, who was Chairman of the Geology Department, he said, "It's a great idea! Why don't you come into my department and you will only have to fulfill the minor requirements for a geology major but then you'll have to write up this thesis for this student conservation program idea of yours." That's basically how this concept got started.

I believed there was a lot of work that needed to be done on our national park lands that could be done by young people...

TI: What was the next step you took to make your dream a reality?

Liz: A few years earlier I met Fairfield Osborne, at the home of a family friend. I found out later that he was the author of a book called Our Plundered Planet. At that time he was President of the Conservation Foundation in New York as well as the New York Zoology Society. He was incredibly kind to me. We spent the entire evening talking about the environment and conservation. At the end of the evening, he said, "When you're through college, do come see me at the Conservation Foundation." During the fall of my senior year I went to see him. I told him I was writing a thesis and shared the concept. Then he said, "You must meet my Vice President, George Brewer." Mr. Brewer became fascinated by this concept. By that time I had already written to and been to Washington, D.C. to see people in the National Park Service as well as Fred Packard of the National Parks Association. Later that spring I met Horace Albright, one of the originators of the National Park Service, back in 1916. [After hearing my idea] he said, "What national parks are you planning to visit this summer to talk things over with the field staff?" I thought that was the funniest thing I'd ever heard! What park superintendent was going to listen to a girl with a piece of paper under her arm saying, "Oh look! I've got an idea for you." But Horace Albright was [serious].

TI: And which parks did you go to?

Liz: Olympic, Mt. Ranier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks were selected for me to go and visit and talk to the park staff about this concept. A friend, Martha [Marty] Hayne Talbot joined me. And for a month (August 1955) we visited these parks, wrote up the report and gave it to Horace Albright and others.

TI: How did it go?

Liz: The first park we visited was Olympic. We shared the concept with the park superintendent and he said, "Well, if you're looking for a trial project..." (I didn't know that was what I was looking for! But I didn't tell him that!) "...count on Olympic for high school, college, graduate, whatever level, if this is what you want, whenever it is you want it. We need your help!"

Why would anybody want to talk to a girl with a piece of paper under her arm saying, "Oh look! I've got an idea for you."?

SCA in Olympic National ForestTI: Wow! That sure was easy!

Liz: That's what I kept feeling with this program,...this dream. I just happened to have been incredibly fortunate to have been in the right spot at the right time.

TI: But you put yourself there, Liz! You thought, "Why would anybody want to talk to a girl with a piece of paper under her arm?" But the other side of it was, the Park Service needed your idea. You didn't have to convince anyone.

Liz: There were some that needed to be convinced, but certainly not that superintendent. There were other people we talked to who chuckled [at the idea]. There were two other parks, Mt. Ranier and Yellowstone, [which weren't interested in the program at first] but since then, our students have been working there.

TI: Besides Olympic, who else signed on right away?

Liz: Grand Teton National Park. So, suddenly we had two parks, one area that wanted high school, college and graduate level students, and another park that wanted just college and graduate students. But that gave us an opportunity [not to have] all our eggs in one basket. To be able to spread it around...and see what could be done.

TI: How did you go about recruiting students?

Liz: Well, it wasn't until the following spring (1956) that we got the final word from the National Park Service that they wanted the program at Grand Teton National Park. [They told us] "...you will visit the colleges and universities in Colorado and Wyoming, and leave the application forms, share the concept with the college professors, go to the Tetons, set the program up for 15 or 16 college and graduate level people. There's a foundation that will cover [the costs], then come back down through the universities, pick up the completed applications...that's the program for this summer." I remember Marty and I saying, "What about Olympic National Park?" And also "It doesn't give us much time!" [and the response was] "...too bad! If you want the program, get on with it."

TI: So what did you do?

Liz: We did as we were told! We visited the colleges, got to the park and found that the program for these college and graduate level students was not helping the parks! Instead, it was for them to plant trees at the brand new Jackson Lake Lodge all summer! Period!

TI: Wow! Did you confront the Park Superintendent?

Liz: He was back east in Washington, D.C. And I remember sputtering and saying "No! This isn't the program! This is not the concept at all! This is just cheap labor!"

TI: What a frustrating situation! What did you do??

Liz: We spoke to Brewer and Packard and cancelled the program. We decided just to sit there and wait 'til the superintendent returned.

"No! This isn't the program!...
This is just cheap labor!"

TI: That was a bold move!

Liz: Absolutely! And we called the universities and told them that the program was cancelled for the summer. I felt that if it wasn't going to be done correctly, don't do it. And this would not have been done correctly.

TI: What happened when the superintendent returned from D.C.?

Liz: He said, "What are you doing here? You're supposed to be getting the kids for the summer!" And we told him that we cancelled the program and that we wanted to set it up for the following summer, in Grand Teton and in Olympic. This would give us the time to raise the money, to do correct applications, to get the word out and get the [on site] supervisors [for the students], etc. and do this correctly. And surprisingly we were given the okay to do it. And the National Parks Association said, "We will be your sponsoring organization." So we became then the Student Conservation Program of the National Parks Association.

TI: Lucky break!

Liz: Yes! Our office hours at national Parks Association were 5 pm - 8 am.. [because there wasn't enough space for us to share it during the day.] It gave us an area where monies could be donated and be tax deductible. We talked with various other organizations: National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the Garden Club of America, etc. and each of those organizations agreed to sponsor the program. Which meant they would loan us their name on the brochure which immediately gave us credentials. And each of them came in with a certain sum of money. We went to libraries to get addresses of schools. We got the National Parks magazine, the Sierra Club and other organizations to print our announcement of the program to people who might apply. And then we found supervisors for the high school program in Olympic which consisted of two groups of high school age boys (because they didn't want any girls in those days.) We were told that [high school] girls couldn't, wouldn't and probably shouldn't do it! [Laughing] Marty and I often wondered what we were considered!

TI: How did you feel about the restrictions they put on girls?

Liz: We thought it was much better for the parks to be happy, than try and come in with everything at once! (The program was opened to high school girls in '69, then went coed in 1970. However, SCA was open to college age women from the beginning.). [But when you're just starting out with a new project...] to say "it only can be done one way"...you've lost before you've started. As long as you keep your values, the essentials of what needs to be done, i.e., that both sides [students and the park] must benefit.

TI: And all this was done by just you and Marty?

Liz: We were the only staff and we were volunteers, but we had wonderful mentors, especially brewer and Packard. We became the SCP (Student Conservation Program) Representatives of the National Parks Association.

...both sides [students and the park]
must benefit.

TI: So you succeeded in getting these first two groups of students working in Grand Teton and at Olympic National Parks. Recall any experiences from that first summer?

Liz: In Olympic we had two groups of high school age boys (one in July and one in August). The kids worked on several trails including graveling the Hoh River Rainforest Nature Trail. [It had been] a muddy 3/4 mile loop. It was the most incredible job that they did and that trail is still in use today! Also at Olympic there was a group of 3 college and graduate women who worked assisting the Park Naturalist and 3 college and graduate men, assisting the Park Biologist, working in the back country. One of the women, Mary Meagher, later became the first woman Park Biologist in Yellowstone, a position she held for many years.

TI: I read at your website that over 30,000 students have gone through this wonderful program of yours. That's quite an accomplishment! How has SCA changed since you began over 40 years ago?

Liz: In many ways, including growth of opportunities and programs, allowing the wonderful staff to place approximately 2000 volunteers a year. But SCA has basically kept the same mission: doing work that needs to be done but can't otherwise be accomplished, while at the same time benefitting the individual.

TI: Do you have any personal stories of lives that were changed in dramatic ways because of these experiences you offered to students through the Student Conservation Association?

Liz: I can think of many. We are working with kids from all different backgrounds and now from 30 foreign countries. We're also doing exchange programs in Europe. One youngster comes to mind, in particular. He was from Newark (New Jersey), 17 years old and apparently he was a very top rapper. But had been kicked out of school and was in serious trouble for many reasons. Somehow he found himself in the offices of Conservation Career Development Program, which is the SCA program out of Newark for inner city and minority youth. He ended up in Idaho working with the program out there. He said, "...by the time I came back I was re-accepted at school. I'm now doing well at school. If it hadn't been for SCA I would have been killed by now." And that still gets me!

TI: Any other success stories?

SCA's High School Program in KenaiLiz: Another young one, I think he was from Queens (New York). His high school teacher who happened to be an SCA alum said to him, "Ever heard of SCA? I think you should give it a try." He ended up in Bryce Canyon (Utah). It was the first time he ever had a backpack on! He thought that was pretty good stuff. [Then] he went into the program again in Mt. Ranier and he was doing some back country work there through SCA and learning mountaineering. And then he said, "Whoa! This is really good stuff!' He went on to college and ended up in the SCA Resource Assistance Program out in Alaska! He ended up getting himself a homestead, a kid out of Queens, [now living] 180 air miles from the nearest road. And he and his wolf-dog, Smoke, ended up clearing trails for the Iditarod (annual 1000 mile dog sled race across Alaska). He kept looking at these maps and he said, "I don't see any trails north of the Arctic Circle." Well, he became the first one to hike as an Arctic Explorer, to go solo with his dog from the Canadian side up over the Arctic Circle, Brooks Range, and over to the Bering Sea [which separates Alaska from Russia]. It took about 10 months. The story came out in the National Geographic a couple of years ago. He's spoken at the Smithsonian. He gives lectures all over the place. With the whole feeling of "Go for you dream!".

I've also learned that the "impossible" just takes a little longer!

TI: That's exactly what you've done, Liz! Do you have any closing words for the young people at The InSite who will be reading this interview?.

Liz: Life is like building a wall. [With] everything you do, you're putting another brick into this wall. But remember, it's the foundation that's the most important. Make certain each brick you put in is as solid as possible. You can build a mighty tall wall, [but] if you try doing something too fast or not well thought out, it will come crashing down because you have some weak bricks in there.

TI: You've certainly learned that, haven't you?

Liz: Yes! I've also learned that the "impossible" just takes a little longer! And if something is "right" go for it!

TI: How can you tell if something is "right?"

Liz: You can feel it in your gut. It all comes down to making a difference. In being born we all make a difference, because we're here! One can make a difference in one's life positively or negatively. Somewhere along the route I learned about the word "justa." So often we limit ourselves [by saying] "I'm justa kid..." "I'm justa woman..." "I'm justa man..." As soon as we say, "I'm justa..." we're limiting ourselves. We've already said, "I can't possibly do it. I'm helpless!" But if I say, "I'm a girl." "I'm a boy." "I'm a student." "I'm a... whatever I am." I am that! That means I take ownership for it and I've automatically got strength and power to be able to do something. I haven't cut myself out of it by giving myself an excuse by being "just a."

It all comes down to making a difference. In being born we all make a difference, because we're here. One can make a difference in one's life positively or negatively...

So often we limit ourselves [by saying] "I'm justa kid..." "I'm justa woman..." "I'm justa man..." As soon as we say, "I'm justa..." we're limiting ourselves.

 

Want to find out more about SCA?

Check out their web site at www.thesca.org

Or contact them at www.thesca.org/contact_us.html

 


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