Women in Natural Resources:
Thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. Please tell
us about your early life, first. Let’s start with your upbringing and
your studies at Vassar College.
Liz Titus Putnam: I grew up on Long Island in a small,
closely-knit family. My parents were ethical, hard-working, caring
people who had wonderful senses of humor and loved the out-of-doors.
They gave my brother and me many wonderful experiences that helped shape
our lives. These included great camping experiences, horse-pack as well
as backpack trips. 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 the 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.
WiNR: Thanks for sharing that story. Tell us about your time at
College in upstate New York.
Titus Putnam: During my freshman year at Vassar in 1951, I took
a course being 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 my eyes to
conservation as a field of study.
In October 1953, during my
junior year, I read an article in Harper’s Magazine. It was
written by Bernard DeVoto and titled “Let’s Close the National Parks.”
His article fascinated me. DeVoto described the deplorable condition of
our national parks because of the lack of adequate federal funding. His
article described park rangers living in tarpaper shacks built as
temporary shelter by the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] in the
1930s. There were very few rangers on staff and they spent much of
their time picking up litter and telling people which way to the nearest
latrine. Furthermore, the limited park ranger staff was forced to cope
with a huge influx of visitors after World War II, who suddenly had more
time and money than ever before, and could hop in their car with their
families and visit a park! DeVoto wrote that something must be done to
awaken the American public to the plight of their national parks. His
article suggested that Army personnel be placed around Yellowstone and
several other large national parks to keep the public from entering
those parks until Congress appropriated sufficient funds to protect the
parks from the people and the people from the parks.
I felt there might be some
other way. I had read about the CCC and the wonderful work that the
corps accomplished in the ‘30s, and thought about a modern-day CCC-type
program with a mission in keeping with the needs of the current times.
As in the ‘30s, there was a tremendous amount work that needed to be
done on our public lands that could not be accomplished because of the
lack of adequate funding. I also felt that there was a tremendous need
in our country for opportunities for volunteerism, especially for young
people. I knew that I personally would love to go to a park and help do
something that was needed, thus letting the well-trained ranger do what
he was trained to do! I began thinking about writing my senior thesis
on “A Proposal for a Student Conservation Corps.” This thesis
eventually became the genesis for the Student Conservation Association (SCA).
I changed my major to
Geology so that I could write my thesis with Dr. A Scott Warthin. Jr.,
Chairman of the Department, as my Advisor; he felt my concept was well
worth exploring. Dr. Warthin was an outstanding teacher who educated,
inspired, and motivated his students. Obviously, Dr. Warthin was a very
important person in the history of SCA—without
his faith and support I would not have been able to write my senior
WiNR: It sounds like Dr. Warthin was one of your earliest
mentors. What role did he play in the process of bringing your Student
Conservation Corps concept to life?
Titus Putnam: Scott was pivotal in so many ways. At that time,
all Geology majors were required to attend summer Geology Camp in
Wyoming between their junior and senior year. As luck would have it,
because I became a Geology major so late in my junior year, there was no
space left for me at Geology Camp. Instead, Scott found a unique
volunteer position for me that summer helping to establish the Upper
Hoosick Valley Watershed Association in Williamstown, MA. That
internship provided me with an incredible opportunity to see what
methods were helpful, and what were not so helpful, in establishing a
That fall (1954) Scott
recommended that I get more information for my thesis by contacting the
National Park Service (NPS) and the National Parks Association (NPA)
directly. Both of these organizations requested that I share my thesis
with them upon its completion. In November 1954, I attended the First
National Watershed Conference held in Washington, D.C. I met with the
NPS at the conference and also met Fred Packard, then Executive
Secretary of the NPA. He later played a major role in the development
Around Thanksgiving that
year, I met Bertha McPherson, daughter of the late Stephen Mather,
founder of the National Park Service. After hearing about my thesis,
Mrs. McPherson (who later became an SCA Board member) felt I should see
her godfather, Horace M. Albright, second Director of the NPS, and share
my “Proposal for a Student Conservation Corps” with him.
Horace Albright had assisted Stephen Mather in founding the
National Park Service in 1916. Albright became the first Superintendent
of Yellowstone National Park, and later was the second Director of NPS
when Mather retired. Throughout his lifetime, because of his love,
passion and dedication to NPS, Albright was known as the agency’s
“godfather.” He became one of my mentors, a cherished friend, and an
SCA Board Member. He later became an SCA Honorary Director, a position
he held for many years until the time of his death.
WiNR: What a great story!
Titus Putnam: Yes, as is true with so many things, networking
was, and still is, essential in the development of SCA. Mr. Albright
suggested I visit some national parks the summer I graduated from
college to share my concept with the Park Superintendents and their
staff to find out if the idea had any merit. He even suggested the
parks I should visit, and gave me a letter of introduction.
Liz Titus Putnam and Martha
at Grand Teton
National Park in 1957.
Martha (Hayne) Talbot,
Vassar ’54, joined me in Olympic National Park in August 1955 and we
visited the four national parks suggested by Mr. Albright. Those were
Olympic, Mount Rainier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton. Marty and I wrote
a report on our findings and gave a copy to Albright. Two parks,
Olympic and Grand Teton, both wanted SCA trial projects. Marty became
my invaluable colleague in this endeavor from 1955-1959, until she
married Dr. Lee Talbot and joined him in his ecological research in the
Serengeti-Mara region of East Africa.
[Talbot’s research at that time focused on the wildlife and vegetation
of the region with an emphasis on the wildebeest. Talbot was
instrumental in the designing and passage of the Endangered Species Act
and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.] Marty’s talents, enthusiasm,
counsel, and friendship were invaluable in setting up the first SCA
programs. Marty later became an SCA Board Member, and is now an SCA
Grand Teton and Olympic were the
first national parks that agreed to having SCA trial projects?
Titus Putnam: Yes. In 1957 there was a total of 53 participants
in both parks: 31 high school boys, ages 15-18, worked in Olympic in the
backcountry in two different programs; and 22 college and graduate men
and women, ages 17-52, assisted rangers and naturalists in three
different programs in both parks.
As the program got off the ground, how did SCA became an established
Association and begin to grow and flourish?
Titus Putnam: The SCA grew because of the support and help from
our many mentors and supporters, including those already mentioned, as
well as George E. Brewer, Jr., Vice President of the Conservation
Foundation, who played an invaluable roll as mentor, friend and
supporter over many years until his death in 1968. There were so many
people who each played significant roles, particularly during the early
stages, but I would be remiss not to mention Jack and Enid Dolstad.
They had great love and knowledge of wilderness, parks, and youth; an
ardent belief in SCA; and were the high school supervisors leading crews
of for SCA from 1958-1970, when they became SCA’s Co- Executive
National Parks Association, the Garden Club of America, and other
organizational supporters, as well as the NPS and the participants
themselves, all played important roles helping SCA grow and flourish.
It always amazed me that whenever there was a stumbling block, someone
would remarkably appear at just the right moment, and the challenge
would become an opportunity! I feel there is even more need today for
such an organization. SCA is fortunate to have dedicated and
professional staff, as well as an equally dedicated and motivated Board
of Directors. SCA became incorporated on June 10, 1964.
WiNR: When people ask you about
SCA, how do you describe the current organization?
Titus Putnam: SCA is an organization that annually provides over
a million hours of voluntary environmental service for our nation’s
public lands and wildlife. The organization offers opportunities
annually for more than 2,500 high school, college, and graduate students
to give service on our public lands. These participants complete needed
work that cannot otherwise be done, and at the same time they have very
worthwhile experiences. For example, the high-school-age program offers
opportunities for boys and girls, 15-18 years old, with or without
backcountry experience, to live for four to five weeks in a wilderness
area in one of our national parks or national forests anywhere from
Alaska to Florida, and Maine to Arizona. Each high school group
consists of six to eight participants and one or more supervisors, also
known as “crew leaders.” They live and work in a wilderness area
building trails, constructing shelters—whatever the agency needs. After
the work period is completed, the participants go for a week-long
recreational backpack trip deeper into the heart of the wilderness area.
SCA Interns (participants who are 18 years and older) perform
an endless array of services. Interns are engaged directly in assisting
rangers and naturalists. They also have opportunities, for instance, to
work with endangered species, perform GIS work, conduct mapping or
monitoring projects, or act as interpreters and environmental educators.
Internships are three to twelve months in duration and provide a great
stepping-stone into a professional conservation career. The
participants come from all 50 states and from more than 30 foreign
countries. Some participants even receive college credit for the work
WiNR: Tell us about your experiences as a woman in the natural
resources field. You’ve told us about the support you found and the
allies you created while you established the SCA. What were some of the
challenges that you faced along the way?
Titus Putnam: There certainly have been challenges along the
way, but they have been faced and we moved on. Being a woman in a man’s
field did have its challenges, yet as with everything, it had its
benefits as well. However, I remember in the early days that I signed
some letters as “E. Sanderson Cushman” and also had stamped
return envelopes sent to the same name. My father asked
me why I didn’t use my name, “Elizabeth.”
I said that I felt it was necessary so that I was thought of as a
man, because that would probably be more credible in professional
One of the challenges Marty and I had to face at the
beginning was that we were told girls could not be in the high school
program because “girls couldn’t, wouldn’t, and shouldn’t.” We felt that
it was more important to get the program started, even with those
limitations. It took until 1969 to get high school girls into the
program. That year two all-girl SCA high school programs were
started—one at Mt. Rainier and the other at the Merck Forest and
Farmland Center (see box) in Vermont followed that same year by a co-ed
high school wilderness program. SCA high school programs have been
co-ed ever since. The Merck
Forest offered the first SCA
program not held on federal lands that opened up other opportunities for
non-Federal involvement. There have been other challenges over the past
47 years, but if one believes strongly in a dream, and if there are
wonderful mentors and supporters, it is amazing what can happen.
Forest and Farmland
Center is a not-for-profit agency whose mission is to teach and
demonstrate the benefits of innovative, sustainable management of
forest and farmland.
WiNR: What would you say are the
greatest current challenges for SCA?
Titus Putnam: Lack of name recognition is still one of SCA’s
biggest challenges. Also, maintaining and developing SCA’s financial
strength and capabilities in order to continue its work will always be
an on-going challenge.
WiNR: Within your current role as Founding President, what do
most like to do in the organization, and what’s your least favorite?
Titus Putnam: What I absolutely adore is being out in the field
with the kids, regardless of their age or project. Having the chance to
talk with them, , hear their stories, and see them in action is
wonderful. I also enjoy giving talks, particularly if an alumnus can
join me. My least favorite aspect is the paper work—essential, but
WiNR: That’s true everywhere, isn’t it! What are some of your
personal challenges as you continue your work with the Association?
Liz Titus Putnam talks to an
SCA crew of high-school
aged volunteers in New
Titus Putnam: I wish I had more time or that there were more
hours in a day so that I could be with my family as well as have more
time to visit with the kids in the field. While in the field, I also
enjoy bringing the older participants together with the younger
participants working in the same parks. I find this to be very
WiNR: From a diversity perspective, and in particular, regarding
gender and ethnicity, how has the variety of SCA participants changed
over the years, and to what do you attribute any change?
Titus Putnam: As I mentioned earlier, for the first 13 years,
SCA could not have any high school-age girls in programs. In 1969 that
changed, and people finally realized that a coed wilderness high school
program could work safely and successfully in the backcountry. Today,
the high school programs are equally divided between boys and girls.
From SCA’s first year, there have been women in the college and graduate
program. Interestingly, one of the SCA women in the 1957 program, Mary
Meagher, became the first park biologist for the NPS, a post she held
for many years in Yellowstone NP. And now, women are Park
Superintendents—a post unheard of for women in the 1950s. [The current
NPS Director, Fran Mainella, is the first woman to hold this post].
Ethnic diversity in SCA
developed slowly, even though the Board and staff have been committed to
increasing diversity. In 1977, SCA started the Urban Youth Program, the
forerunner of what later became known as the Conservation Career
Development Program. Year-round opportunities run by the SCA’s Regional
Offices are also available. Providing minority youth with year-round
training opportunities while they are giving needed service to their
home communities, as well as working in SCA’s national programs, is
helping more youngsters become involved. I think growth of these kinds
of opportunities is attributable to the dedication of the staff and
Board, who make it happen, and also to the young people themselves who
want these kinds of opportunities. SCA is also now working with the
Bureau of Indian Affairs to open up further opportunities to young
people from different cultures.
You won the Chevron Texaco Conservation Award for 2003. What other
honors or recognitions have you received throughout your career?
Titus Putnam: I have been deeply touched by the awards I have
received, which I feel truly honor the entire organization. Each staff
member and each participant are what makes SCA work, and work so well.
Although I am honored and humbled by each award, a few in particular
have very deep personal meaning to me because of the people involved.
Honorary Park Ranger, awarded to me by the NPS in 1989. This
honor included receiving a beautiful NPS park ranger hat, 60-70 years
old, previously passed down from ranger to ranger. Two park rangers I
greatly admired wore this hat.
President’s Volunteer Action Award. It was an incredible and
moving experience to receive this award at the White House with my
daughter at my side in 1982. As we walked through the front door of the
White House, the Marine band was playing and someone quietly said,
“Welcome to the White House.” It deeply affected me to be invited to
our nation’s home, receive this honor from the President, and have my
daughter present, and it is something I will never forget.
Margaret Douglas Medal from the Garden Club of America. I
received this beautiful award in 1966 just before my beloved father
died. He and my mother traveled with me to GCA’s Annual Award dinner in
Philadelphia. It was presented to me by some dear GCA friends who had
been very supportive of SCA since its inception.
The Public Service Award,
The Conservation Service Award, and the Secretary’s
Commendation. Dr. A. Scott Warthin Jr., Marty Hayne Talbot, and I
were honored together with these awards from the Department of Interior
in 1987. Scott received the Public Service Award, Marty received the
Conservation Service Award and I received the Secretary’s Commendation.
This joint honor is something I will never forget. For all three of
us, all close friends, to be recognized together by DOI for our work
with SCA was an incredible experience, made even more moving because
Scott was gravely ill.
You have clearly become a mentor and role model for other women. What
would you say are important steps or stages to ensure a successful
career in conservation or natural resource management? In particular,
what is your advice for young women?
Titus Putnam: For any young woman, the most important advice I
can give is for her to get the best education she can in the field in
which she wants to work. This education should be coupled with field
experience, if possible, and then she should go for her dream, whatever
it is. Also, follow up with every connection because networking is so
important—one never knows where it will lead. I also suggest that she
believe in herself and not give up when things get tough. Finally,
treat each challenge as an opportunity; keep a positive frame of mind
even when things might look gloomy; always be ethical and honest because
one is only as good as one’s word; treat others as one wants to be
treated; be caring; and keep one’s sense of humor and perspective.
Along those lines, how do young women (or men) who want to work with SCA
specifically, get in the door? For those alumni who have participated
in SCA and now want to work for them, what advice might you have for
I suggest that they write, call, or visit SCA on its web site (see
box below). Express your interest and find out what opportunities are
available either with the Program or on the staff. For those
interested, they can also visit one of the regional offices (Pittsburgh,
ID, New Paltz NY, and Oakland
CA) or at SCA’s headquarters in
New Hampshire and talk with the
Student Conservation Association
P.O. Box 550
Charlestown, NH 03603
Furthermore, if you are an
alumnus, whether you want to work for SCA or not, please contact Janet
Warren, SCA Alumni Director either on the web or at SCA’s headquarters
in New Hampshire. She could be very helpful with networking and I know
she welcomes hearing from any and all alumni.
What is your vision for SCA in the next 10 years? Do you see more
programs? Do you see the need for sustainability? What is important
My vision for the future of SCA is very positive. I feel there is more
need today for this organization than ever before, for both the youth
involved as well as for this fragile earth itself.
like to see more programs developed, including more opportunities in
urban areas, as well as training opportunities for youth in rural
communities. I also want to reach out to people in other countries,
sharing the basic SCA concept so that they can set up their own version
of SCA that would most benefit them and their youth.
always so much work to do with new opportunities that keep surfacing,
such as the Fire Education , Desert Restoration, and the Seeds and Weeds
projects. It’s important that SCA keeps its balance and upholds its
integrity and ethics in all its dealings, and so continue to grow
wisely. I have tremendous confidence in both the current staff and
WiNR: How do you balance work,
play, and spending time with your family?
Titus Putnam: As Jack Dolstad, long-time supervisor and former
SCA Executive Director once told me, “SCA becomes a way of life.” My
husband and I have fun doing a variety of things together—be it SCA-related,
family time, or our community work. Somehow it all seems to balance.
But, it does seem that there never is enough time! I guess that is a
WiNR: Everyone needs to make time for recreation. What kinds of
things do you enjoy doing when you’re not working with SCA?
Titus Putnam: I have fun no matter what I’m doing! I enjoy
joining my husband, Bruce Putnam, doing things for the Merck Forest or
Bennington Museum, two organizations in which he is deeply involved (see
box). We also take walks, dance, go to movies, and do things with
friends and family. We also travel for pleasure, and we’ve gone on
trips to Africa, Ireland, the U.K., and Canada, among other
Bruce Putnam is the Chairman of the Board for both the
Merck Forest and the Bennington
Museum. (See information above on the
Merck Forest and Farmland
Center). The Museum is located in
Bennington, VT and
houses the largest public collection of Grandma Moses paintings and
memorabilia, along with the Grandma Moses Schoolhouse she attended as
a child. For more information, visit
WiNR: I’ve noticed that SCA does not always do a good job with
highlighting the recreational opportunities that are part of any SCA
program [Roberts is an outdoor educator with a recreation background,
and a former employee of SCA.]. If SCA will market the “full
experience,” you will attract more participants and also let them know
that there can be a playful component to the work, as well as learning
experiences. In an earlier statement you said, “This is not play, it is
work,” but I think SCA should include how much fun the projects can
Titus Putnam: Thank you. I agree with your comments and stand
corrected! To clarify my statement about the work projects, the work
that the youth are performing is needed work that would not
otherwise be done, rather than make work just to keep people
busy. Doing something that needs to be done can be great fun and
very satisfying. SCA is an organization that shows young people that
one can have fun doing hard, physical, productive work—what makes it fun
is the attitude that one brings to an experience. The kids in SCA’s
programs seem to develop a positive attitude towards work—and I think
some youngsters are surprised to discover the magic of having fun while
WiNR: Thanks for the
clarification. Many high school students come into SCA not knowing what
they’re going to do with their lives. Do you see SCA being a
stepping-stone for young people to explore conservation work as a
Titus Putnam: SCA is definitely a stepping-stone for young
people exploring conservation work as a possible career. There are many
examples. SCA offers opportunities for young adults to learn about
careers in this field because of the variety of work they are doing and
the agency for which they are working. This can open up possibilities
that the participant may never have thought of before. Our program
gives both the agency and the student a chance to look each other over
to see if they might be a good fit in the future.
There are countless success stories of SCA alumni finding
careers in the agency they worked for as an SCA participant. Some have
become park superintendents, or work with one of the many other agencies
that have SCA programs. Other alumni have gone on to be teachers or
work in some other field of conservation. I understand that more than
60% of our alumni have gone into conservation fields. It’s exciting to
see what SCA alumni—now more than 40,000—are doing with their lives.
WiNR: You’ve mentioned a few people throughout the interview who
have influenced you. You spoke of professors at Vassar and NPS people,
but are there others you’d like to highlight as being mentors and role
models for you?
Titus Putnam: My mother and father. I was so fortunate—they
were both my mentors and role models. They were parents who supported
their kids and who believed in them so much. Through their belief in us
and their love of the land they helped us to understand that we were
entrusted with its future. We were taught to do the best we could each
day, to live ethical and caring lives. My parents each had some serious
physical challenges which never stopped either of them! They did what
they felt needed to be done regardless of the challenge. Their message
was that we are so lucky to have life that we must do the very best that
we can and not waste it. Life is too precious.
Olaus Murie were two people whom I was privileged to know. They each
had a tremendous impact on my life. Both Mardy and Olaus, with their
passion for wilderness, opened up the eyes of so many people to the
necessity of wilderness, and ways that it must be preserved. Their
lives impacted many people, including mine.
There are so many people who
have impacted my life in a positive way, and have made such a difference
for SCA that I can’t list them all. Marion Eppley, though, was very
special. He was one of the most prominent engineers of his time and a
dear friend of my family. He founded the Eppley Laboratory based in
Rhode Island, a research facility that
produces scientific instruments and equipment. This fascinating,
brilliant, thoughtful man was equally at home in an urban environment as
in wilderness, but he often said that he was happiest and most at peace
when in wilderness. He had great knowledge of the woods and a “oneness”
with a canoe or hiking through forested lands. He was an incredible
inspiration to all those fortunate to know him. He did so much with his
life, and made me realize, through his example, the importance of caring
for this earth to help sustain it for the future.
WiNR: Is there anything about your experiences developing the
SCA that you’d like to share that we haven’t talked about yet?
Titus Putnam: When I first shared my concept for a senior thesis
with my Vassar professor, Dr. Warthin, he asked me if I had two years
after college to give to this concept. I laughed at him, thinking,
“What a ridiculous question!” And now, nearly 50 years later, I still
feel so incredibly fortunate to be involved with this organization! I
have met so many wonderful people, and I’m grateful for what I have
seen, for what I have been able to do, to share, to experience, and to
This fragile earth is
hurting. Young people today have so many serious challenges that need
to be faced head on. I believe it is vitally important for the young to
realize they can each do something positive with their lives—that they
can go for their dream whatever that is. This world needs their help
more than ever before. I am so thankful that more and more women and
minority youth are becoming involved with SCA and the conservation
field—they are needed. We all are needed to work together for
the future of this planet.
WiNR: That is valuable wisdom. I believe young people today
have many more opportunities than in the past, yet so many don’t believe
that challenges exist for them. Your advice, based on your experiences
and your way of living your life, continues to be valuable in
encouraging young women and men to find new ways of doing things and not
letting barriers stop them from pursuing their goals and dreams. Not
giving up is critical.
Titus Putnam: I believe that the right person comes along at the
right time to help with a particular challenge, but one must be open to
that possibility! Marty Talbot and I, just 23- and 22-year-old women in
1955, were very fortunate to find wonderful mentors who were there for
us at just the right times when we were trying to establish a program
and make a dream come true.
My mother used to say that we are fortunate to have been given
life, but along with the gift of life should come the question, “Why am
I here? What can I do with my life that is positive?” If we stop long
enough to ponder, answers do come! All things are possible.
Nina S. Roberts, Ph.D., worked with the Student
Conservation Association for over six years. She was the Assistant
Director of SCA’s National Urban & Diversity Programs, managing the
outdoor education programs and providing opportunities for career
exploration in natural resources and related fields primarily for people
of color and women. Roberts later became SCA’s Research Associate and
was engaged in a myriad of both regional and national evaluation
projects from measuring program outcomes to designing surveys for
acquiring information from agency partners. Roberts is currently an
Education and Outreach Specialist with the National Park Service.