An unsung army of students maintains our national parks

  • Student Conservation Association

  After wildfires raged through Yellowstone National Park in 1988, Park Service employees were overwhelmed: Trails and bridges had to be rebuilt, campsites restored and trees planted. The magnitude of the job was depressing.


But their spirits were soon lifted by nearly 1,000 enthusiastic teenagers wearing hard hats. Organized by the Student Conservation Association, they worked during the next three years to heal the park's scars.


The Student Conservation Association has long been a powerhouse supplier of environmentally minded volunteers to national parks. The students supply labor in exchange for experience and the chance to spend time outdoors in wild and spectacular country.


Founded in 1957, SCA is the brainchild of Elizabeth Cushman Titus, a student at Vassar College in New York who created it for her senior thesis. She modeled it after President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, which put unemployed people to work restoring and maintaining public lands. But SCA soon evolved into more than a workhorse for the Park Service. It is now a stepping stone for those interested in conservation careers: More than half of its participants typically land jobs in the natural resource field.


Over the years, some 18,000 students between the ages of 16 and 18 have participated in SCA's summer work crews - building trails and improving wildlife habitat at hundreds of parks, including Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier and Denali. Housing, food and equipment are provided, and financial aid is available for transportation to work sites. After three weeks of hard work, the young people are rewarded with a weeklong backpacking trip.


For college-age students, SCA has developed a resource-assistant program that connects them with professional resource managers. In exchange for housing, a living allowance and reimbursement for travel, students work full time as naturalists and educators in parks all over the country.


SCA has also begun a program to steer young urban women and minorities into natural-resource careers. Starting in high school, recruits participate in summer backcountry work crews and monthly community restoration projects, such as rehabilitating the polluted Duwamish River in Seattle. Later, participants receive career counseling and advice on internships. Many students come from a background that discourages jobs in the outdoors, says president Scott Izzo, but once a network of support and experience is established, some of the kids get hooked.


For a wide variety of adults already in the conservation field, including trail crew leaders or professionals seeking leadership training, SCA also offers a flexible, five-day course that teaches skills such as wildland restoration and urban trail design.


Since public-land and resource agencies fund a chunk of the nonprofit group's programs, the budget shutdowns were a setback, says Jay Satz, director of field operations. For the first time in seven years the group isn't growing, he adds, and the high school program has been reduced by some 20 percent from previous years. It's ironic, he says: "SCA programs are designed to lead to a career in resource management, but everyone is downsizing."


But SCA president Scott Izzo is optimistic that SCA will maintain its track record of catapulting young people into hard-to-get conservation jobs. In addition to publishing Earth Work, a monthly newsletter that lists jobs and internships in the environmental field, Izzo wants to take advantage of more sophisticated computer services to improve networking between job-seekers and conservation organizations. Whether alumni enter the conservation workforce or not, says Izzo, SCA's main goal is the creation of an environmental constituency.


For more information, contact SCA headquarters at P.O. Box 550, Charlestown, NH 03603-0550 (603/543-1700).





* Michelle McClellan