Editor's note: A topic discussed in detail at America's Summit on the National Parks earlier this year was not just how to get youth into the parks, but how to attract a cross-section of youth that reflected America's diversity. In a series of stories, the Traveler will look at the approaches different groups take to address that issue. In this, the first article in that series, we'll explore the various programs the Student Conservation Association uses to connect youth to the outdoors in general, and national parks specifically.
Who will be the next stewards and advocates of the national parks? In a society where Baby Boomers are steadily graying, and where the "face" of the National Park Service is decidedly male and Caucasian, it's not an unreasonable question to ask.
The question was raised at America's Summit on the National Parks, a conference that drew nearly 400 to Washington, D.C., in mid-January to explore the future of the National Park System as the National Park Service heads towards its centennial in 2016. Concern over that question stems from the relative lack of diversity in the faces of the nearly 279 million visitors to the parks last year, a similar lack of diversity in the workforce of the Park Service, and a nagging concern that today's youth are not drawn to the parks.
But the concern is not newfound, and there are groups across the country that are working to answer that question by enticing youth of all races into not just the national parks specifically, but the outdoors in general.
For more than 50 years the Student Conservation Association, an idea suggested by a Vassar College student in her senior thesis, has been connecting youth with the outdoors. It was launched in the mid-1950s when Elizabeth Cushman, shocked by a magazine article suggesting national parks should be shuttered because they were being overwhelmed by visitors, was searching for a way that students could help the National Park Service with trail work and other conservation projects.
Her proposal: a student organization fashioned after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s.
Since SCA's initial field camps in 1957 at Grand Teton and Olympic national parks, the non-profit organization has brought close to 70,000 young Americans into the parks to experience nature while working on projects to help heal damaged environmental areas.
To recruit students, SCA representatives every year disperse across the country to visit some 200 college campuses, where they connect with some 160,000 students to explain SCA's programs and benefits.
Today the SCA's mission has broadened beyond national park locations to include outdoors work in urban areas, and efforts to increase the diversity of the youth who answer the SCA's call. The non-profit organization's programs have evolved with the needs that arose on the public lands. While SCA's first efforts were concentrated on backcountry areas, more than 30 years ago the group launched some of the first youth programs in urban areas. Today roughly one-third of the interns work in backcountry settings, one-third in front-country settings, and one third in urban areas.
"We’re still working with the national parks as well as fish and wildlife refuges, the Forest Service and any number of other federal, state, even local partners," said Kevin Hamilton, SCA's vice president of marketing and communications. "In fact, we’ve seen a pretty significant growth in the community programs that we do in urban areas around the country."
"... We certainly don’t have any trouble attracting young people who want to go to national parks," he adds. "We had something like 16,000 applicants last year, and we were able to place some 4,000 of them. So, there’s quite a bit of demand from the youth end, and we’re hoping that the number of opportunities will continue to increase.”
Opportunities aren't lacking, though sometimes the dollars to support SCA programs are. From the beginning the organization has leveraged Park Service dollars with funds it raises form philanthropic sources, but the recent sour economy seen in both federal budgets and philanthropic giving has made attracting private funds to support SCA's programs even more important.
For college students accepted into the SCA's summer internships, the organization pays for transportation to the park, refuge, or national forest, provides housing and meals, insurance, and a small weekly stipend. High school students need to arrange their own transportation to field camps, but there is no tuition cost.
So while demand from students to spend their summers working on trail crews, or removing invasive weeds, or even wildlife research projects, is high, the SCA doesn't always have the funds to put them all to work.
"I think we all know the pressures on government budgets, and federal agencies are our primary partner," Mr. Hamilton said.
Help may come from the Obama administration's 21st Century Youth Conservation Corps initiative, which in Fiscal 2013 seeks some $35 million for an array of programs to connect youth with the outdoors.
Beyond that, the SCA relies on corporate sponsors to help fund such programs as the Alternative Spring Break, which brings more than 100 college students a year to national parks during their spring breaks. In recent years, clothing retailer American Eagle Outfitters has underwritten these programs.
"This year we are going to have some 120 students involved. Each one of the four weeks in March will feature a spring break program. The first and third weeks will be at Everglades National Park, and the second and fourth weeks in March will be at the Joshua Tree National Park," said Mr. Hamilton. "In each case 30 students coming in, being engaged in a variety of conservation work. At the Everglades they’ll be removing invasives, they’ll be removing human influences, such as old fencing and things like that that have been posing habitat issues for wildlife, they’ll also be doing some trail building around campgrounds.
"Out at Joshua Tree they’ll be removing invasives, they’ll be engaging in raptor surveys and desert tortoise monitoring,” he said.
Another program that SCA is involved with this month is the National Park Service Academy, a program initiated by officials at Grand Teton National Park that brings college students of color to the park for an intensive week of meetings and field work with park personnel. It's a program that not only introduces students of color to the Park Service, but opens their eyes to careers with the agency, or one of the other land-management agencies.
"Through the week they will be immersed in the culture and the opportunities that exist within national parks. They will find out about career opportunities, they will find out about the history, the culture, and the heritage of national parks for a week. This summer each student will have an internship in a national park. Then they’ll go back to their universities and serve as SCA ambassadors for the National Park Service," explained Mr. Hamilton.
Along with staying in touch with mentors from the Park Service, the students will return to the park in the summer for three-month SCA internships "as a way of providing them with the experiences and insights they need to be positioned to be entry-level employees for the Park Service," he said.
Though the program is only in its second year, it already is expanding, as a similar program was planned for Great Smoky Mountains National Park this week.
These and other programs with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service also work to increase the number of minority students connecting with the outdoors.
"We work on a number of other diversity initiatives with the Park Service, we have cultural diversity internships," the SCA official said. "For the last three, if not four years, we have also been working with the Fish and Wildlife Service on an initiative to increase diversity in their workforce. Last summer the program expanded from the Northeast Division into the Southeast and Midwest Divisions as well. And we had close to 70 students involved in that.
“Again, the whole effort is designed to attract young people of color, and young people from under-represented communities who would not ordinarily consider careers with these agencies, nor would they consider summer internships with these agencies," said Mr. Hamilton. "It's a way of allowing them to get to know the opportunities, to get a foot in the door and gain experience and position themselves for lifelong careers in the federal agencies.”
SCA's application process is blind to income levels and race. If need be, the SCA can even help students get the gear -- perhaps a sleeping bag -- they would need working in the backcountry of a national park.
"We don’t see any reason to have any barriers between young people and nature," explained Mr. Hamilton. "If there are any, we’ll remove them. These are tuition-free programs, many of them are underwritten. And I have to also say that our community programs are paid positions, they are not volunteer positions like many of our other programs on federal lands. Our community programs exist within cities and oftentimes we are working with local corporate sponsors.”
The programs are working, both to lure more youth into the outdoors, and to increase the diversity of that youth.
“In the past five years, we have placed approximately 8,500 young people of color in conservation programs across the country," said Mr. Hamilton. "We are committed to growing that number. We know the agencies are looking to increase their numbers, as well.
"As we are able to expand programs like the National Park Service Academy, and as the agencies are more concerned aboutworkforce development—much of their present workforce is heading towards retirement—we hope to see those numbers grow that much more in the future."