5 Ways the Student Conservation Association Is Making a Difference

Photo: Student Conservation Association

Young people passionate about conservation, meet public lands in dire need of stewardship.

It’s a match made in heaven, thanks to the Student Conservation Association (SCA). This nonprofit connects eager volunteers with seasonal positions in national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, historic sites, urban parks, and more, providing them with training and financial support. Volunteers, who range from high school student crews to college grads to even older enthusiasts, do everything from trail work to environmental education and interpretation to field research. Not only do their efforts provide a tremendous boost to underfunded public lands, but SCA interns also gain critical career skills and nurture a lifelong ethic for land stewardship. Talk about a win-win.

Fittingly, it was a young idealist who got the whole program started. Elizabeth Titus Putnam, a Vassar College student, dreamed up the idea of a youth-led conservation corps for her senior thesis in 1953. The project became a reality in 1957, when the first SCA interns were placed at Olympic and Grand Teton National Parks. Since then, more than 80,000 people have participated, serving in all 50 states and contributing more than 1.5 million hours of service every year.

SCA interns can and do work in the marquee national parks, perhaps giving wildlife talks at Yosemite or sprucing up trails at the Grand Canyon. But the program encompasses much more than that. These five projects provide a snapshot of the wide variety of ways that the SCA supports public lands—and the people who love them.

Restoring Wildfire-Burned Zones in Shasta-Trinity National Forest

As the climate warms and wildfires become only a bigger problem across the West, a growing number of public lands need restoration after the blazes finally burn out. Three crews of SCA interns tackled that challenge last summer in Northern California, working through 100-plus-degree heat to improve access to recently burned parts of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The teams rebuilt bridges, cleared fallen trees, and stabilized eroded slopes, in some places working with handheld crosscut saws because chainsaws are prohibited. 

Students walking with tools Photo: Student Conservation Association

Greening Up Northwest Indiana

Marginalized communities often don’t have nearly as many trees as more affluent areas, which affects everything from summertime high temperatures to neighborhood air and water pollution levels—and ultimately how much a community enjoys being outside. The SCA’s Calumet Conservation Tree Corps aims to fix that inequality in six Northwest Indiana towns by planting 500 native trees every year. The crew also takes care of the 2,500 trees planted by previous teams and collects data for digital mapping of the project.

Maintaining City Parks in Pittsburgh

Starting last summer and continuing through the fall, an all-BIPOC crew is putting boots to the ground across Pittsburgh’s city parks. On any given day, the five-person team might be working on trails, ripping out invasive plants, or cleaning up trash. The program also includes education about local environmental issues, writing projects, and interactions with conservationists and other guest speakers. (Public Lands’ giving arm, the Public Lands Fund, sponsors this crew.)

Improving Habitats with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 

The SCA’s Career Discovery Intern Program connects culturally and ethnically diverse volunteers with national wildlife refuge (NWR) positions across the country, with the goal of giving interns the background they need for careers with USFWS. This past summer’s participants served in habitat restoration at Montezuma NWR in upstate New York, wildlife biology at Minnesota Valley NWR just outside Minneapolis, and the gamut of conservation activities at Maine Coastal Islands NWR. Andres Rosales, a 20-year-old biology major from San Antonio, says he discovered “a newfound love for shorebirds” while studying puffins and terns, as well as building trails and taking care of a historic lighthouse. 

Protecting the Wilderness at Yosemite National Park and Superior National Forest

The pandemic has sparked a new interest in outdoor recreation across the country—a wonderful development that has nonetheless led to crowding and damage from overuse on public lands. Last summer, one BIPOC team from California’s Bay Area served at Yosemite, erasing unauthorized campsite and social trails to protect ecological diversity, water quality, and wildlife habitats. Another crew spent the summer in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest, fixing damage inflicted on campgrounds and natural areas by last year’s crowds and introducing visitors to Leave No Trace principles.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.