Elizabeth (Liz) Cushman Titus Putnam is a pioneering force in the world of conservation. It has been suggested that "If, as writer Wallace Stegner contended, our national parks are America's best idea, then Liz Titus Putnam surely must be credited with the next-best innovation . . . the impact of the Student Conservation Association over the past 50 years amounts to a tsunami of stewardship." Liz Cushman envisioned national service before there was a Peace Corps, VISTA or City Year. Her call to environmental stewardship preceded Earth Day, the EPA and Silent Spring. She recognized the benefits of connecting young people to the outdoors many decades before "Nature-deficit disorder" became a national concern.
She grew up on Long Island in a small, closely knit family who took horse-pack and back packing family trips, including camping in the Canadian wilderness and in the American West. She recalled:
We would often take the sleeper train from Montreal and meet our Indian guides at 3 a.m. at a "whistle stop" deep in the heart of Canadian north woods. From there we would portage and canoe for three days and two nights to Dad's log cabin located on a most beautiful and pristine lake - Lac a Moise. Through their actions, these guides showed us how important the earth was to all of us. The way they lived their lives gave us even more respect for the earth, and for them. On these trips, we would stay in the wilderness for two to three weeks, never seeing another soul, fishing for our food, seeing wildlife everywhere, and loving every moment.
These trips taught her to deeply value our natural world and, in particular, our national parks. "I was brought up to believe that land is a trust and that we are all responsible for taking care of this earth. I was also taught that life itself is a privilege and that we must always give something back. As my father said, 'If something needs to be done, pitch in and help out.' I believe we all can make a positive difference with our lives."
Liz attended Vassar College in upstate New York. In her freshman year in 1951, she took a course offered for the first time, "Conservation of Natural Resources." It was an interdepartmental course offered by the Geology, Plant Science and Zoology departments that opened up Liz's eyes to conservation as a field of study. In October 1953, during her junior year, she read a Harper's Magazine article written by Bernard DeVoto entitled, "Let's Close the National Parks" in which the author warned that America's national parks were being "loved to death" due to lack of adequate federal funding. DeVoto wrote that something had to be done to awaken the American public to the plight of their national parks. His proposed solution was to temporarily close some of the large national parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite, etc.) and bring in the Army to prevent the public from entering until appropriate funding would be allocated to "protect the parks from the people and the people from the parks." If that didn't work – then close more parks.
But Liz believed there was another solution. She had read about the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the wonderful work that it had accomplished in the 1930s. Liz envisioned a contemporary CCC-type program with a mission consistent with the needs of the times. She also felt there was a great need for opportunities for volunteerism, for giving service, especially for young people. Liz believed that young people, if offered the opportunity, would want to help our national parks and in return for their service would gain invaluable experiences. Student volunteers could build trails, maintain campgrounds and perform similar duties, permitting park staff to focus on other priorities. The participants would accomplish needed tasks that otherwise would not get done, while at the same time they would benefit from the worthwhile experiences-a true "win-win" opportunity for all concerned. This led Liz to write her senior thesis on this concept, entitled, Thesis on a proposed Student Conservation Corps.
Dr. A. Scott Warthin, Jr., Vassar College Professor and Geology Department Chairman at the time, was Liz's thesis advisor and asked Liz if she could devote two years to her idea after graduation. "It was the funniest thing I'd ever heard," said Liz. "I mean, who would listen to a girl with a paper in her hands?"
Soon after, Liz had the good fortune to be introduced to both George E. Brewer, Jr., Vice-President of the Conservation Foundation, and Horace M. Albright, former director of the National Park Service who had assisted Stephen Mather in founding the NPS. Both men were impressed with Liz's concept for a Student Conservation Corps and suggested that she visit some national parks the summer after her graduation in 1955 and speak with the park superintendents and their staffs asking for their comments. Albright suggested she visit four national parks, Olympic, Mount Rainier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. He wrote her a letter of introduction to take with her to the parks, and asked her to write a report of her findings, and submit it to him over Labor Day when he would be in Grand Teton National Park. Brewer suggested that should the idea be successful, she seek the sponsorship of the National Parks Association (NPA) – now the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA)-because of the interest already expressed by Fred M. Packard, executive director and Sigurd Olsen, then president of NPA. At Liz's request, Liz' invaluable faculty advisor at Vassar, suggested a recent Vassar graduate, Martha "Marty" Hayne (Talbot) as a colleague for that initial visit to the four national parks.
Liz confesses she was totally unprepared for what ensued. "At Olympic National Park, our first stop, Superintendent Fred Overly said, 'If you're looking for a trial project, count on Olympic – for high school, college and/or graduate students – whatever – we need your help!' It was incredible!"
Later, Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Frank Oberhansley said he too would accept a trial project, but only for college and graduate students. Liz and Marty submitted their report to Albright, Brewer, Packard, and Conrad L. Wirth, then director of NPS. By the summer of 1956, word came that trial projects of the Student Conservation Program of the National Parks Association could proceed in the both Olympic and Grand Teton National Parks in 1957 and that Laurance S. Rockefeller would support the proposed project in Grand Teton National Park.
Liz and Marty returned to Olympic and Grand Teton National Parks in the summer of 1956 to refine the idea and work out program details. In the fall of 1956 Liz and Marty gave a talk to the Bennington (VT) Garden Club. The president of the Club was so excited about the idea that she introduced them to Mrs. LeRoy Clark, then head of the Garden Club of America's National Parks Committee. The Garden Club of America became one of the earliest sponsors of the fledgling program. Other early sponsors included the Conservation Foundation, the Jackson Hole Preserve, Inc., the National Parks Association, the Sierra Club, the New York Zoological Society and the Wilderness Society, among others.
In June, 1957, 53 SCA volunteers took their positions at Grand Teton and Olympic National Parks. In the Tetons, 16 college and graduate men and women alternated between interpretive services, resource protection, and administrative duties over an eight-week period. Evenings often included lectures from such conservation champions as Olaus and Mardy Murie. "Both had such passion for wilderness," says Liz. "They profoundly influenced many people, including us." It was the Muries who invited Liz and Marty to join Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas on his celebrated 1956 pro-environment hike along the wilderness beaches of Olympic National Park with leaders of the national environmental organizations. At the Olympic program in 1957, three college men assisted the park biologist and three college and graduate women assisted the park naturalist. Among them: Mary Meagher, who later became Yellowstone's first female park biologist and a leading expert on the American bison. Placing teenage women on SCA crews, however, was another matter. It was felt that high school girls "couldn't/wouldn't/shouldn't" perform heavy, physical labor, Liz notes. Officials were also concerned that mixing young boys and girls would put too much "wild" in the wilderness. It was not until 1969 that high school girls could be accepted into the program.
In the early days, Putnam recalled that she signed her name E. Sanderson Cushman. She believed others would perceive her to be a male using that signature which in that era would give her more credibility in professional matters. The societal bias against females and the legacy of the original CCC model meant that it was not until 1969 that high school girls could be accepted into the program. Indeed, the SCA program had a direct influence in changing the Park Services perceptions of the role of women since it showed that women could effectively perform such non-traditional tasks such as building trails.
In 1959, Marty left the program to marry Lee Talbot, an ecologist who was working in Africa. In 1960, Liz married David Titus and they had a daughter, Phebe. She continued her work with SCA.
When Supt. Oberhansley transferred in 1959 from the Tetons to Zion National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument, he asked Liz, "Where are my SCA kids?" He felt very strongly that SCA must expand to other parks – for the sake of the program as well as of the parks – they each needed each other! And so in 1960 the program expanded to include those two areas, and in 1961 it expanded to include Dixie National Forest.
Wanting to assure SCA's future independence, in 1964 Liz oversaw that SCA was incorporated as a non-profit organization, naming former NPS Director Conrad Wirth chairman of the board, Liz as president and CEO and George Brewer as vice president. In 1969, Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson visited an SCA crew in Olympic National Park and used the SCA model as the basis for legislation that created the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC). By 1969, SCA had expanded to 14 parks and forest service areas as well as to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and reached outside of the government sector to the Merck Forest and Farmland Center in Vermont, a nonprofit organization.
The winter of 1969, Liz resigned her position due to illness, but her influence remained pervasive and important. She was SCA's guiding force and inspirational leader. "Liz's characteristic humility and authentic appreciation for the contributions of others often deflect attention and acclaim," notes SCA president Dale Penny, "but Liz is a legitimate giant in the conservation field. And she is a continuing source of inspiration to all of us." In 1992, she married Bruce Putnam and her commitment to the organization and to the youth conservation movement is as strong today as ever.
Today, SCA offers opportunities annually for nearly 4000 high school, college and graduate students to give service on our public lands. "SCA has perhaps contributed more to the national parks than any other private volunteer partner in the parks' history," said NPS former director Roger Kennedy on presenting SCA with the Partnership Achievement Award. "We cannot do without SCA," said Fran Maniella, former director of the National Park Service.
In 2007, SCA celebrated the work of 50,000 alumni in its 50th Anniversary year and in April 2008 convened Earth Vision: Actions for a Healthy Planet the first ever youth-in-conservation summit in Washington, D.C. This event brought 500 passionate young people from 40 states together for forums and conferences with leading environmental scholars.
Today, SCA continues to expand its urban programs to bring urban teens to the forefront of conservation leadership and expand their relationship with nature and conservation in their communities. New programs such as "Alternative Spring Break" have met with rave reviews and requests for more opportunities by both the Agencies as well as the participants. More than 50,000 SCA alumni have given more than 26 million hours (that's more than three million work days) of hands-on conservation service restoring and preserving millions of acres of wild lands. Tens of thousands of SCA alumni are now environmental professionals with thousands more serving as volunteer conservation leaders in their home communities. SCA has become our nation's largest conservation service program for youth. To quote Liz, "It is the collaborative efforts of family, friends, mentors, an incredibly dedicated and talented SCA staff, board, partners, and more than 50,000 alumni that have made this possible."
Fifty years of experience working with youth, communities, governmental agencies, and nonprofit organizations has placed SCA in a unique position as it continues to build new generations of conservation leaders in an age of climate change, nature-deficit disorder, and increasingly urbanized populations. It is a mission that is more vital today than ever before.
As founding president, Liz continues to be SCA's premier ambassador and remains actively involved with SCA. She is involved with several youth, education, and conservation organizations and has received numerous awards for her work with SCA including the Rachel Carson Leadership Award, honorary doctorates from the University of Vermont and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and the Society of Woman Geographers Outstanding Achievement Award. She has been cited by the president of the United States, the Department of the Interior, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Park Service, and the Garden Club of America for her achievements and her ongoing commitment to the natural world and all who rely on it.
Guardians of the Parks: A History of the National Parks and Conservation Association - John C. Miles
The National Parks and the Woman's Voice: A History – Polly Kaufman
"Women in Natural Resources" - Nina S. Roberts, Vassar Quarterly, Summer 2005, Vol. 101,
"Our Land, Our Youth, Our Future." – The Student Conservation Association Student Conservation Association: www.thesca.org