Elizabeth C. Titus Putnam


Student Conservation Association


By Nina S. Roberts


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 Vassar
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 SCAwithout his faith and support I would not have been able to write my senior thesis. 

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 new organization.  

            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 of SCA.

            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 (Marty) Talbot

 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 Honorary Director.

 WiNR:  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.

WiNR:  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 Directors (1970-75).  

Also, the 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 they do.

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 matters.
            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. 

The Merck 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 seemingly endless.

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 Hampshire.

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 rewarding.
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.

WiNR:  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.    

WiNR:  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.

WiNR:  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 them?

Titus Putnam:  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, Seattle, Washington D.C., Boise ID, New Paltz NY, and Oakland CA) or at SCA’s headquarters in Charlestown, New Hampshire and talk with the appropriate staff.  

Student Conservation Association

P.O.  Box 550

Charlestown, NH  03603

Ph.   603-543-1700

            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.   

WiNR:  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 for you?

Titus Putnam:  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.

I would 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.

There is 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 Board.

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 typical dilemma!        

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 destinations.   

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 be.  

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 “working.”

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 possible career?

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.

Mardy and 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 Newport, 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 accomplish.

            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.