Tree Hugger U: America's Corps of Future Conservationists
Protecting America’s natural resources is a huge job. Forests and national parks, community green spaces and marine sanctuaries all need massive husbandry efforts. An army of conservationists works across all 50 states to preserve and restore these national treasures.
The Student Conservation Association (SCA), headquartered in Charlestown, New Hampshire, is the only national organization with the mission to develop tomorrow’s conservation leaders—right this minute.
According to Valerie Bailey, SCA’s vice president for strategic planning and development, that mission is about to go into overdrive.
“The agencies that care for our public lands are losing significant numbers of employees in the next 10 years because of retirement,” Bailey tells TakePart. “Tens of thousands of people will be retiring from the ranks of rangers, field technicians, and biologists. There is a need, and there is an opportunity to match it.”
The SCA is up for the challenge.
YOUTH ON A MISSION
For the past 54 years, the SCA has provided high school and college students with hands-on conservation experiences in all 50 states. More than 60,000 alumni passed through its programs, providing service valued at over half a billion dollars.
The SCA currently offers young people four different opportunities to serve their country in the great outdoors:
1) National Conservation Crews: During two- to five-week long summer programs, teens aged 15 to 19 spend their days performing conservation projects and their nights camping under the stars.
2) Conservation Internships: Students aged 18 and up can apply to spend three to 12 months in expenses-paid internships. Openings include doing community outreach at Grand Canyon National Park, working as a wildlife technician in Louisiana’s Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuge, and assisting the education coordinator at the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center.
3) Community Programs: Currently operating in 16 cities, SCA’s community programs give 15- to 19-year-olds a chance to participate in local service projects on weekends and throughout the summer.
4) Conservation Corps: Corps members aged 18 and over spend three to 10 months living and working in groups located across the country. Teams focus on wildfire management, trail restoration, environmental education and invasive species eradication.
Regardless of their age, Bailey observes that young people who try out conservation service become committed to the cause, and often turn their passion into green careers.
“Sometimes [students from urban communities] are not aware of green spaces in their own backyard,” says Bailey. “When they are introduced to that, it opens up a whole new world.”
Older teens see SCA as a gap year opportunity—a chance to boost their resume with new skills while they figure out what to do next. Internships enable college students to applying what they learned in class and develop real-world knowledge and skills.
“Many alumni, in some cases upward of 50 percent, land in conservation-related jobs,” Bailey says. “Maybe they become a lawyer, but they become an environmental lawyer. Maybe they become a graphic artist, but they go to work for an environmental firm. Many of them go on to work for our public lands management agencies—national park service, forest service, fish and wildlife, and others.”
SCA alum Mauricio Escobar is a prime example.
Born in a small town in El Salvador, Escobar emigrated to South Central Los Angeles when he was 10. Surrounded by gangs, drugs and violence, he became a troublesome teen and had frequent run-ins with police.
One summer, to escape from working as a gardener for his father, Escobar joined an SCA trail crew at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
“What was the hardest thing for an inner city youth who was used to drive-by shootings and turf-divided school zones? It was not the long hours of cutting brush, or the full-body poison oak outbreak. For me, the hardest things were the pristine silence of nature, deafening to ears accustomed to noise, and the blinding pitch-black nights with the bizarre but mesmerizing highway of stars. Facing these unknowns gave me a new way to interpret the world and my place in it. My life and world no longer needed to be defined by confusing anger. I could see new avenues.”
Escobar became the first person in his Salvadorian community to graduate from university. After attending graduate school to study history, he became a park ranger at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.
SERVICE FOR THE FUTURE
SCA currently places 4,200 student volunteers in 500 national and cultural sites each year.
Because of ongoing environmental concerns, such as loss of wildlife habitat and climate change, as well as the upcoming retirement of thousands of conservation specialists, the SCA has an ambitious new goal: To double their annual active membership over the next decade to 8,000 and beyond.
Valerie Bailey believes the number is achievable—especially since more young people are applying to SCA programs than ever before.
“They look around and they see what they’re going to inherit,” says Bailey. “There are many who want to learn how to become better conservation stewards, and how to live lightly on the land. And they want to take that message out to their families and their friends.”
At SCA’s first annual conservation commencement ceremony, renowned naturalist, author and educator Scott Russell Sanders explained it best:
“We're not called to save the world,” he says. “We are called to act in light of our deepest values. And if we value the living abundance that we have all inherited at our birth, then we should do everything we can to preserve it.”
Photo: Wayne National Forest/Creative Commons via Flickr.