Making a Difference: Get Involved with the Environment

trail construction

Southwest Conservation Corps crew members help to build a mountain bike trail in Salida, Colorado.

You can only learn so much environmental science indoors. Sometimes, you just have to go out and get mud on your boots. Luckily many nonprofit environmental groups offer programs in which you can do just that—and make a difference while doing it.

Environmental organizations across the country offer students the opportunity to learn in living ecosystems. Time commitments and program formats vary widely—from field trips and weekend workshops to long-term internships and school partnerships that continue for years.

Center for Land-Based Learning
An organization called the Center for Land-Based Learning, based in northern California, focuses its work on farmland, ranchland, and other areas where human activities and environmental needs must be kept in balance. One of its programs, called Student and Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship (SLEWS), teaches habitat preservation and restoration. This program includes many activities, such as the restoration of a hedgerow habitat between farm fields for the benefit of local plants and animals.

Another of their programs, called Project GROW (Gathering to Restore Oak Woodlands), is restoring an oak woodland that was disturbed during highway construction. By the third year of the project, students had helped to gather and plant 400 acorns, plant 1,000 native grass plugs, map the area in geographic information systems (GIS), build and install irrigation systems, as well as build 15 nest boxes.

Youth Conservation Corps
The Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) program was founded in 1971. On the national level, the YCC is a partnership between the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The YCC offers paid opportunities for students between the ages of 15 and 18. YCC projects, which typically last from 8 to 10 weeks during the summer, include conservation work projects such as trail construction, habitat preservation, and assistance with wildlife research. Most projects take place with federal agencies such as the National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management. Though most programs are non-residential, students who participate in YCC projects in Yellowstone National Parks live on-site for the duration of the program.

Many states also offer YCC programs. These programs have varying age requirements. State YCC projects are similar to those at the national level, and typically include conservation projects in state parks.

The Student Conservation Association
The Student Conservation Association (SCA), founded in 1957, is one of the oldest organizations in resource conservation. The SCA offers programs in all 50 states, and has more than 50,000 alumni. As a participant in an SCA program, you might travel to another region for a project, or you could find one close to home. Many students enter an SCA program during or after college, but there are also options for high school students beginning at age 15.

city volunteer

Summer community crew positions with the SCA offer practical experience in the field of conservation.

Opportunities for high school students include volunteer positions with Conservation Crews and Community Conservation programs. Conservation Crews are for students between the ages of 15 and 19. Crews consist of six to eight students who work under the supervision of a trained crew leader on month-long projects in the frontcountry or backcountry. Typical Conservation Crew activities include trail building and habitat restoration projects. Community Conservation programs include year-round Community Conservation Leadership Corps positions and Summer Community Crews. These community programs offer students real-world training and service opportunities in the field of conservation, often in an urban setting.

Participation in an SCA program gives students the chance to serve the land while also gaining practical skills that will last a lifetime. In addition, many participants in SCA programs end up pursuing a career in the field of conservation. In fact, over 60 percent of SCA alumni become conservation professionals, and 12 percent of National Park Service employees came to the NPS initially through an SCA program.

If you are interested in making a longer commitment to the SCA, you might choose to participate in a Conservation Internship, which is available to those 18 and older. An SCA internship is an excellent way to test your interest in a variety of environmental careers by offering you the chance to work alongside established professionals in the field. These internships typically last between 12 weeks and 12 months. Examples of Conservation Internships include work as a biology technician at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico;, as a fisheries intern in Alaska, or as a backcountry park ranger in the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. Many of these internships offer stipends for travel to and from the internship site, free housing, a weekly living allowance, and an education award at the completion of the internship, which can be used to pay for future educational expenses or to pay off a portion of student loans.

The Benefits to You
Volunteer and paid opportunities obviously benefit the local ecosystems, but what do you get from it, in addition to dirt under your fingernails? The following is a short list of just some of the benefits:

  • Learn a new skill, such as how to build and install an irrigation system, take a tree inventory, or build a box for a nesting owl.
  • Improve your science classwork by learning the science behind what you see in a living ecosystem.
  • Work side-by-side with professional scientists, collecting data or samples for ongoing investigations.
  • Become aware of the career possibilities related to working in the outdoors.
  • Make lasting friendships, working closely with others who share your interests.

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