How the Student Conservation Association Works

woman holding earth
SCA offers hundreds of conservation service opportunities to high school and college students.
David Freund/Photodisc/Getty Images

Tracking grizzly bears through the Tetons in Wyoming. Building bridges across rivers in Idaho's national forests. Restoring the Florida Everglades after Hurricane Andrew. Mapping geothermal features in Yellowstone Park. Teaching schoolchildren how to turn sunflower seeds into biodiesel fuel.

These are just some of the projects carried out by the Student Conservation Association's 4,000 interns and volunteers each year.


Headquartered in Charlestown, N.H., on 50 acres along the Connecticut River, the Student Conservation Association (SCA) is the largest youth environmental group in the country.

Founded in 1957, the SCA has regional offices in Washington, D.C., Oakland, Calif., Pittsburgh and Seattle. It offers hundreds of conservation service opportunities to high school and college students that may last anywhere from a couple weeks up to a year [source: SCA].

Each year, the interns work on restoring land, building trails, replenishing depleted fish populations, preventing forest fires and removing invasive plants on more than 500 sites in national parks, national monuments, wilderness areas and other federally-controlled land throughout the United States.

The nonprofit organization's goal is to create the next generation of conservationists. And so far, it's been pretty successful. About 70 percent of SCA alumni choose conservation careers or remain actively involved in community environmental projects [source: SCA].

Read on to find out how the SCA got started.


History of the Student Conservation Association

In 1953, Elizabeth Titus Putnam read a story in Harper's Magazine detailing the demise of United States national parks due to inadequate federal funding and a huge influx of post-World War II American families taking camping trips.

A student at Vassar College who spent her youth hiking and canoeing during vacations to her family's cabin in the Canadian north woods, Putnam was discouraged to learn the park service was woefully understaffed, and the rangers it did employ were living in leaky shacks [source:].


The article prompted Putnam, who majored in geology, to write her senior thesis, "A Proposal for a Student Conservation Corps," on creating a volunteer organization comprised of college students who would build hiking trails, maintain campgrounds and collect entrance fees to help pick up the slack.

She not only got an "A" on the paper, but her thesis advisor recommended that she share her proposal with the National Parks Service and the National Parks Association, leading to a collaboration that would last for more than 50 years [source:].

In 1957, the Student Conservation Association (SCA) placed its first group of 53 volunteers in Grand Teton and Olympic National Parks to help the park rangers for the summer. In 1960, the SCA expanded its program into Zion National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah [source: SCA]. Four years later, it was incorporated as a nonprofit organization.

Today, the SCA works on conservation projects in all 50 states through partnerships with the National Parks Service, The Nature Conservancy, Bureau of Indian Affairs, AmeriCorps, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey and Bureau of Land Management [source: SCA].

It also partners with The Audubon Society, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, the Oregon Department of Fish and Game, New Hampshire State Parks, Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources, New York City's Department of Environmental Protection and Chicago's Department of the Environment.

Read on to find out what kind of programs the SCA runs.


The Student Conservation Association at Work

Student Conservation Association (SCA) volunteers spend more than 1.5 million hours per year restoring public lands and protecting endangered species through four main divisions: national crews, community programs, conservation corps and internships.

During month-long summer projects, national crews of six to eight high school students from around the country help build trails and restore habitats in U.S. national parks and public lands. They camp at the sites, spending their days clearing trees and rocks, building lean-tos and removing invasive plants [source: SCA].


As for community programs, high school students from certain cities can join the Conservation Leadership Corps or become a community crew member. The cities include: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville, Manchester, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Seattle, San Francisco, Stamford, Washington, D.C. and towns throughout New Jersey [source: SCA].

As part of the Conservation Leadership Corps, high school students volunteer on weekends during the school year to build trails, restore rivers and lakes and conserve local habitats. As community crew members, students spend six to seven weeks during the summer commuting to nearby parks to maintain trails, learn outdoor skills and receive training about the local environment [source: SCA].

In the Conservation Leadership Corps, college and graduate students who are 18 and older spend three to 10 months working on a specific environmental issue such as preserving the Hudson Valley, restoring California desert lands eroded by off-road vehicles or monitoring wildfires in Washington state.

The Conservation Leadership Corps also includes four residential programs where 10 or more interns share a communal residence on state land teaching kids at local schools about the environment and restoring hiking trails in areas like the Adirondacks in upstate New York.

The SCA also offers classes, such as a tutorial aimed to educate unfamiliar participants on the proper trail skills, including handling and restoration techniques [source: National Trails Training Partnership].

Through internships, students 18 years and older can participate in more technically advanced projects like backcountry patrol, conducting ecological surveys or monitoring soil and water.

Read on to find out how to become an intern.


Interning with the Student Conservation Association

To intern at the Student Conservation Association (SCA), you must be at least 18 years old and fill out an online application. The application asks for your personal contact information, work experience, educational background, licenses and certifications, references and resume.

Be aware that the SCA will not review your application until you have at least one letter of recommendation filled out. The suggested number is three [source: SCA].


Chose the projects you'd like to work on by searching through the SCA's internship database, which lists openings in 50 disciplines including GIS/GPS mapping and information management, habitat restoration, historical resource studies, plant inventorying and monitoring, trail design, visitor and interpretive services, fisheries management and wildlife preservation.

You can sort your search by location, date and position types. The admissions process for internships is on a rolling basis, and each internship position has its own closing date. The application fee is $25, and students can apply for as many positions as they wish. You should apply for at least four positions, and applying for eight to 10 gives you the best chance at landing at least one internship [source: SCA].

Internships are both short and long term. Some last less than three months while other internships require a commitment of six to 12 months. Most, if not all, of your travel and housing expenses will be paid for, along with medical and accident insurance. You'll also receive a living stipend of $75 to $300 per month [source: SCA].

Interns can receive college credit by making arrangements with their school's academic advisor. Those who aren't currently enrolled in school can earn up to 12 undergraduate credits from Colorado State University's Department of Natural Resources, Recreation and Tourism.

If you have any problems applying, the SCA has an admissions team that can guide you through the process.

Read on to learn about other ways you can help.


Other Ways to Help the Student Conservation Association

Each student who works for the Student Conservation Association (SCA) gets all of his or her expenses paid for the duration of the internship.

For each position, the National Parks Service (or agency partner on the project) pays 75 percent of the student's expenses. The SCA raises the other 25 percent through donations from foundations, corporations and private donors.


Private donors who give at least $250 are matched up with a volunteer, and they receive a personal letter from the volunteer that details his or her experience in the program. You can give in a lump sum through the Web site or make arrangements to make payments, having as little as $5 per month automatically deducted from your bank account [source: SCA].

You can also donate appreciated stock or mutual funds that you've owned for more than one year. On your taxes, you can deduct the full value of the appreciated securities up to 30 percent of your adjusted gross income [source: SCA].

The SCA is also a member of EarthShare, an alliance that allows government and corporate employees to donate to major environmental organizations through payroll deductions. In some cases, the employer will match the donation.

Or if you're worried about your carbon footprint, you can buy an offset for the pollution you create when traveling by car, plane, train or bus through the SCA's partnership with Native Energy. There's a travel calculator on the SCA Web site that will tell you how much to pay [source: SCA].

Most of the money will go to renewable energy projects like wind farms and dairy methane converters, and 15 percent of donations funds conservation initiatives.

For more information on how to volunteer, intern or donate to the SCA, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Cornell, Marci. "SCA: Helping Kids to Help the Environment." The Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce. August 22, 1996. (Accessed 5/16/2009).
  • National Trails Training Partnership. "Student Conservation Association." American Trails. (Accessed 5/16/09).
  • Student Conservation Association. "Applying." (Accessed 5/16/09)
  • Student Conservation Association. "Benefits." (Accessed 5/16/09)
  • Student Conservation Association. "Community Programs." (Accessed 5/16/09)
  • Student Conservation Association. "FAQS." (Accessed 5/16/09)
  • Student Conservation Association. "History." (Accessed 5/16/09)
  • Student Conservation Association. "International Applicants."
  • (Accessed 5/16/09)
  • Student Conservation Association. "National Conservation Crews." (Accessed 5/16/09)
  • Student Conservation Association. "Partners, Sponsors & Donors." (Accessed 5/16/09)
  • Student Conservation Association. "Sponsorships." (Accessed 5/16/09)
  • Student Conservation Association. "Travel Calculator." (Accessed 5/16/09)
  • University of Western Ontario. "Public History Links." Department of History. (Accessed 5/16/09)
  • "Elizabeth Titus Putnam: Founder of the Student Conservation Association." (Accessed 5/16/09)