Editor's note: There are worries across the country that a majority of today's younger generations are not interested in spending much time outdoors in natural areas. The Student Conservation Association exists to help nurture and immerse these generations in places such as national parks and national forests. Anna Rivera has been involved with SCA's student internship program twice, and came away with the following thoughts on the program, the experience she came away with, and younger generations and the environment.
As my internship comes to a close, I can’t help but reflect on my experiences at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Coming into this, I was not quite sure what I would do on a day-to-day basis. I’d previously been an interpretation intern at Grand Teton National Park and had interned with the Student Conservation Association twice before, so I had some familiarity with the National Park Service and SCA.
As an NPS Academy intern at Sleeping Bear being trained for a potential job, all I knew was that I’d be in natural resource interpretation. The NPS Academy orientation prep was helpful, and I had high expectations for my internship. I also knew that NPS and SCA had high expectations for me, and I was determined not to let them down.
Upon my arrival, I immediately sensed the cohesion of the natural resources division. I dove right into invasive plant removal the first week. Every crew from the plant branch was working to eradicate baby’s breath at that time, and being part of that cooperative effort was a great introduction to that group dynamic. As the season began to take shape, so did the main project I was working on.
My task was to be on the interpretation side of a restoration project on North Manitou Island. I spoke with visitors about using Leave No Trace practices in addition to wilderness camping ethics, and I conducted visitor experience surveys. I went to the island a few times each month for about five days at a time. When I wasn’t on the island, I was lucky enough to have a very flexible schedule.
I mention this flexibility because it allowed me to gain a wide variety of experiences that I know I’ll be able to use in the future. One day, I did prairie warbler surveys. Another survey involved recording coyote tracks. I canoed along a river to catalog invasive aquatic plants, and I waded in water past my knees to collect water samples and test quality. I collected seed for the propagation of native plants, and I pulled out more invasives. I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in so many projects and contribute so much to the park.
I definitely feel like there is some sort of disconnect between the environment and young Americans. Many of the kids I went to high school with didn’t seem interested in spending time outdoors hiking, camping, etc., even though their backyard was essentially the San Gabriel Mountains. They were much more into their video games, computers, shopping, and, later on, going to clubs and bars and all the excitement in the city (LA).
Los Angeles is surrounded by natural areas and it's not too long of a drive to the nearest national park. However, it seemed many of the kids I grew up with weren’t interested in these places unless they were a Boy or Girl Scout.
Maybe students don't want to be labeled as "environmentalists" because there seems to be a stigma attached to such a person, like they're some hippie who is going to chain him/herself to a tree. If parents would just take their kids out of their houses, away from their TVs and video games every once in a while, they would see that there are beautiful things in this world worth saving. I really love that the SCA exists, so that those of us who want to apply ourselves toward caring for the environment can come together and make a difference.
In fact, one of the best parts of my internship was that my supervisor and crew leader really cared about the work I was doing. We all cared about what we all were doing. I feel like I did good, honorable work as a member of the natural resources team and that whole natural resources division made a difference at Sleeping Bear Dunes.
I couldn’t really ask for anything more. I challenge the SCA interns and park employees who will be working here next season to approach their work with as much fervor as we all did. That passion and teamwork is what made for such a productive season at this park.
Anna Rivera is a student at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California.