Elizabeth Putnam was attending Vassar College in 1953 when she had an idea. She outlined her idea in a senior thesis and four years later the first Student Conservation Association volunteers arrived at Grand Teton and Olympic National Parks.
Modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Depression-era program started by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, the Student Conservation Association, or SCA, has been going strong, and getting stronger, for 60 years. Every year SCA members across the nation contribute more than 1.5 million service hours, constructing or maintaining trails, building and restoring structures at trailheads and campgrounds, monitoring wildlife, and removing trash and debris from nearly 120,000 acres.
As important as the SCA is to land management agencies balancing budget woes and maintenance backlogs, the SCA is equally important to the young people in the program. Known as interns, the SCA provides a way for high school and college students or recent graduates to gain skills they can use throughout their lives. Interns come from all 50 states and from all socio-economic backgrounds. They serve from two weeks to 12 months in national parks and forests, marine sanctuaries, cultural landmarks and urban green spaces across the United States. Interns are paid a stipend for food and travel expenses while earning education awards that help reduce their student loans.
If you visited the Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark or the Burgess Junction Visitor Center this year, you met an SCA intern.
They live at Porcupine Ranger Station, a remote location without internet or cell phone connections. Some work 10 hours a day, four days a week, spending their three days off touring the area, hiking, exploring and applying for jobs.
A recent graduate of Penn State University is working as an interpreter at the Medicine Wheel this summer. His community outreach project, an SCA requirement completed in cooperation with other interns, was producing a detailed information brochure that will be used by future interpreters at the Wheel. Though he studied criminology, he’s now thinking his career niche is delivering outdoor education and interpretation and he belongs not in Pennsylvania, but in the West.
With a degree in psychology, an SCA intern from Maryland returned to the Medicine Wheel this year as a U.S. Forest Service employee after her SCA internship at the Wheel in 2016. She is using her two summers of experience to help her chart her career path, possibly archaeology, possibly in the field of wilderness therapy for autistic children.
In 2010, the SCA and the Forest Service cooperated to create the Veterans Fire Corps program as a way to help veterans transition to civilian life and still serve their country. Veterans have extensive training and leadership experience and are accustomed to working together. The program capitalizes on veterans’ prior training, adding specialized skills in chainsaws and wildland fire suppression. When not working on wildland fires, six-person Veterans Fire Corps crews help us build fences and reconstruct and clear trails.
The SCA reports that in 2016, SCA interns served in all 50 states, provided environmental education to more than 900,000 people, restored nearly 180,000 acres of land, and built or maintained more than 20,000 structures. More than three-fourths of the interns state that their SCA experiences have helped them be more certain of their career paths.
The Bighorn National Forest has been a proud SCA partner for over 10 years. Twelve SCA interns worked in the Bighorn National Forest this summer, six as interpreters and six with the Veterans Fire Corps. Whether answering questions at the Medicine Wheel, explaining Leave No Trace principles to forest visitors at Burgess, or digging fire line, SCA interns are working to realize their personal potential while helping to preserve our natural resources for the future.
Susan Douglas is the public affairs specialist for the Bighorn National Forest.