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Elizabeth Titus Putnam: Founder of the Student Conservation Association

This fragile earth is hurting. Young people today have so many serious challenges that need to be faced head on. I believe it is vitally important for the young to realize they can each do something positive with their lives-that they can go for their dream whatever that is. This world needs their help more than ever before. *** We all are needed to work together for the future of this planet. -Elizabeth Titus Putnam (¶65)
Elizabeth (Liz) Cushman Titus Putnam grew up on Long Island in a small, close-knit family. Her parents were ethical, caring, and loved the outdoors. The family frequently took trips - hiking and canoeing to her father's log cabin located deep in the heart of the Canadian north woods on a pristine lake, Lac à Moise. They were accompanied by Native guides who, by the way they lived their lives, showed the value and the importance of conserving the wilderness. These trips had a profound effect on Putnam's love and great concern for the preservation of nature (Putnam, Interview: Elizabeth C. Titus Putnam and the Student Conservation Association, 2004).

She also inherited a tremendous sense of determination from her parents, who each had potentially debilitating physical challenges to overcome. Putnam claims, "the physical challenges with which my parents lived never deterred them from living a full, active life. There never was a complaint! They believed that you did the best with what you were given. I was brought up with the 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 accomplish things and if something needs to be done, then do it!'" (¶ 8).

Putnam attended Vassar College in upstate New York. During her freshman year, she took an interdepartmental course entitled Conservation of Natural Resources, which was offered for the first time. It introduced her to conservation as a field of study. In October 1953, during her junior year, she read an article by Bernard DeVoto in Harper's Magazine called "Let's Close the National Parks," and it fascinated her. The article outlined the dreadful state of the national parks due to inadequate federal funding. There were extremely few park rangers on staff, and the ones who were, lived in leaky tarpaper shacks built as temporary shelter by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930's and dealt with the huge influx of visitors following World War II. DeVoto recognized something had to be done to awaken the American public to the plight of the parks, and he proposed that Army personnel be placed around Yellowstone and several other large national parks to keep the public from entering them until Congress appropriated sufficient funds to protect them. Putnam, however, felt there might be another way (Putnam, Interview: Elizabeth C. Titus Putnam and the Student Conservation Association, 2004).

She had read about the work the CCC had accomplished in the 1930's and envisioned a modernized CCC-type organization with a mission in keeping with the demands of the times. Rather than prohibit people from entering the parks, Putnam felt there was a significant need for volunteer opportunities for young people to give their service to help combat the problem of insufficient government funding in the parks. This idea prompted her to write her senior thesis on "A Proposal for A Student Conservation Corps," the genesis for today's Student Conservation Association (SCA) (Putnam, Interview: Elizabeth C. Titus Putnam and the Student Conservation Association, 2004).

Putnam changed her major to Geology in order to write her thesis with Dr. A. Scott Warthin, Jr., chairman of the department, as her advisor. Dr. Warthin felt her concept warranted exploration and was pivotal in the development of her thesis. Because Putnam changed majors late in her junior year, she was unable to attend the required Geology summer camp in Wyoming. Instead, Dr. Warthin arranged a unique volunteer position for her that summer helping establish the Upper Hoosick Valley Watershed Association in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The internship afforded her an incredible opportunity to experience first-hand methods that were both helpful and counterproductive in creating a new organization (Putnam).

In the fall of Putnam's senior year, Dr. Warthin recommended that she get more information for her thesis by contacting the National Park Service (NPS) and the National Parks Association (NPA) (now the NPCA) directly. Both organizations requested her to share her proposal with them upon completion. In November, Putnam attended in Washington, D.C. the First National Watershed Conference and met with NPS personnel, and Fred Packard, Executive Secretary of the NPA. Later that month, Putnam met Bertha E. McPherson, daughter of the late founder of the NPS, Stephen Mather. After hearing the concept of Liz's thesis, McPherson recommended that Putnam share it with McPherson's godfather, Horace M. Albright, former director of the NPS. Albright had assisted Mather in founding the NPS in 1916, and because of Albright's continuing love, passion, and dedication to the agency, he came to be known as its "godfather." He suggested that Putnam visit some national parks that summer and share her concept with the park superintendents and their staffs to find out if they would be interested in such a program. Albright also provided Liz with a letter of introduction to the park staffs. (Putnam, Interview: Elizabeth C. Titus Putnam and the Student Conservation Association, 2004).

Martha (Marty) Hayne Talbot joined Putnam as a colleague in Liz's endeavor in August 1955, and they visited the four national parks suggested by Albright - Olympic, Mount Rainier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton. Talbot and Putnam compiled a report on their findings and gave it, as requested, to Albright along with copies to others. The trip was fruitful, and both Olympic and Grand Teton National Parks requested SCA trial projects. In 1957, a total of 53 high school, college and graduate level volunteers assisted rangers and naturalists in both parks with three different type programs. Talbot remained active in the program until 1959, when she married Dr. Lee M. Talbot and joined him with his ecological research in East Africa and elsewhere. She later became an SCA Board Member and is currently an Honorary Director (Putnam, Interview: Elizabeth C. Titus Putnam and the Student Conservation Association, 2004).

The SCA was incorporated June 10, 1964 and today provides over a million and a half hours of voluntary environmental service for the United States' public lands and wildlife per year. It offers opportunities each year for more than 3,500 high school, college, and graduate students to perform service on public lands. These volunteers complete essential duties that would otherwise be neglected, and in the process, they gain invaluable field experience. The high school age program affords opportunities for boys and girls, 15-18 years of age, to live for four to five weeks in one of the national parks or forests. Each group consists of six to eight members as well as one or more supervisors, also called "crew leaders." The students perform duties the agency needs to have accomplished, and then go for a week-long recreational backpack trip. SCA interns (participants who are 18 years or older) also contribute immensely to wherever they are working. The interns are engaged directly in assisting rangers and naturalists in parks, forests and wilderness areas. They also have unique opportunities to work with endangered species, perform geographic information system (GIS) work, conduct mapping or monitoring projects, or act as interpreters and environmental educators. Internships are three to twelve months long and provide the interns with a wealth of experience, and also can serve as a stepping stone into a professional conservation career if so desired. (Putnam, Interview: Elizabeth C. Titus Putnam and the Student Conservation Association, 2004).

Today, Putnam is still actively involved with the SCA, serving as its Founding President and Honorary Director. In addition, she works with her husband, Bruce Putnam, on projects for the Merck Forest and Farmland Center and the Bennington Museum. Putnam has been honored with numerous awards for her vision and dedication to the SCA. Among them, Garden Club of America's Margaret Douglas Medal in 1966 and the US President's Volunteer Action Award in 1982. The Department of the Interior presented her with the Conservation Service Award in 1974 and, in 1987, with the Secretary's Commendation as part of a joint ceremony in which Talbot received the Conservation Service Award and Dr. Warthin was given the Public Service Award. In 1989, the NPS acknowledged Putnam as an Honorary Park Ranger, and in 2003 she won the Chevron Texaco Conservation Award (Putnam, Interview: Elizabeth C. Titus Putnam and the Student Conservation Association, 2004). More recently, Putnam has received two honorary Doctorates, one from the University of Vermont and one from SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry, as well as the Rachel Carson Leadership Award and the Society of Women Geographers (SWG) Outstanding Achievement Award for her work.

Putnam, E. T. (1997, December). A Conversation with Liz Titus Putnam. (T. InSight, Interviewer). Retrieved April 19, 2008 from

Putnam, E. T. (2004, June). Interview: Elizabeth C. Titus Putnam and the Student Conservation Association. (N. S. Roberts, Interviewer). Retrieved April 15, 2008 from

Additional Resources
Student Conservation Association,, headquarters phone number: 603-543-1700

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