The Audacity of Liz Putnam

You may not know her name or her groundbreaking conservation group, but if you’ve ever been in a national park, you’ve stood in Liz Putnam’s shadow.

By Mel Allen

Apr 17 2017


You may not know her name. You might never have heard of the groundbreaking conservation group she founded 60 years ago, or met any of the thousands of young people she’s inspired. But if you’ve ever been in a national park, you’ve stood in Liz Putnam’s shadow. 

liz putnam
Liz Putnam at home in South Shaftsbury, Vermont.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Like most origin stories, this one begins at the intersection of chance and destiny.

Liz Titus Putnam is telling it to me on a soft summer morning in South Shaftsbury, Vermont, about five miles north of Bennington, as we sit outside on a patio with her husband, Bruce, looking out at West Mountain. The peaceful farmstead, called Manatuck Farm, has been in her family since 1951, when her parents detoured to Vermont to see a friend while on their way to scout coastal properties for a second-home retreat from New York City. The friend showed them a once-sturdy 18th-century farm that had fallen into disuse, and to their surprise they fell in love with the possibilities and the views that took their breath away. For years they pulled up boulders, repaired buildings, planted gardens, breathing new life into a farm that today is graced with elegant tall maples and a broad meadow laced with bluebird houses that rolls toward the woods. There are outbuildings and a horse barn, and standing across the narrow country road is the white house where Liz’s daughter, Phebe, lives. When Liz talks about the farm—how she learned to handle a team of horses to cultivate corn, to drive the John Deere tractor that still stands in the barn after nearly seven decades of use, the way storms light up the sky, her many dogs that lived and died here—her eyes sparkle, and then at times they close, as if she’s in a reverie of memories. And there are moments when tears well up. “I get leaky,” she says.

Liz Putnam's Hat
Among the many mementos Liz Putnam has accumulated in her 60-year crusade to preserve public lands, she especially treasures the simple gift of a park ranger’s hat from the National Park Service.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Liz Putnam is full of bounce and vigor at 83, as befits someone who has hiked endless miles on some of the most beautiful trails in America. Bruce has a few years on her, but he, too, looks as if he could hop onto the tractor that at this moment a farmer is steering as he cuts hay in the meadow. It’s late August, and on many farms it should be the third cutting, but this is the first—“to the dismay of the farmer,” Liz says. She won’t allow a single cutting until the bobolinks have finished nesting in the fields and coaxed their babies to flight. Out in the field, we see five wild turkeys pecking at the soil.

The origin story Liz tells is about her Student Conservation Association (SCA), which you may never have heard of, although it’s the reason that anyone who’s stepped foot in a national park has walked in her shadow. When only in her early twenties, she wedged her way into the male-dominated world of park rangers and superintendents and created what had never existed before in America: a youth volunteer conservation movement. Years later, Roger Kennedy, former director of the National Park Service, praised SCA as contributing “more to the national parks than any private volunteer partner in the parks’ history.” Today more than 10,000 youth from all backgrounds apply to fill some 4,000 SCA openings, and they fan out each year to work in national, state, and city parks.

The cofounders of what would become the Student Conservation Association are shown here in 1958, when they were still two recent Vassar graduates named Liz Cushman, left, and Marty Hayne. “Our goal when we started was just not to be in the way,” Liz jokes today.
Photo Credit : courtesy of the Student Conservation Association
SCA began in 1957 at just two sites, Grand Teton National Park and Olympic National Park. But by the time this photo was taken—showing young volunteers at Rocky Mountain National Park in 1971—the program had become widely established in parks and forests at the national, state, and local levels.
Photo Credit : courtesy of the Student Conservation Association

This is an auspicious day for me to be here. News has just come that Maine has gained a new wilderness park—some 87,000 acres of mountains, forests, and waterways—to be named Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Tomorrow marks the centennial of the National Park Service, and while the occasion is being celebrated across the country, we are here, talking about one of its most important and little-known stories while watching a farmer haying a meadow.

Liz is telling me about chance. It was one evening in October 1953, and Elizabeth “Liz” Sanderson Cushman, then a 20-year-old college junior, had settled into a chair at the Vassar College library in Poughkeepsie, New York, and begun thumbing through the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine. A provocative headline caught her eye: “Let’s Close the National Parks.” The article was written by historian Bernard DeVoto, who argued that America had neglected its most precious landscapes. Beneath his simmering anger was an urgent plea for help. He wrote that Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Rocky Mountain National Park, among others, had become “slums,” overrun with tourists hungry for adventure after the war. He told of parks with fewer summer rangers than in the 1930s, but with 12 times as many visitors. He described rangers who worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, many living with their families in tar-paper barracks built years earlier, and whose morale, he said, was “eroding.” His solution: Until Congress cared enough to properly fund the parks and restore their standing as “priceless” resources, it needed to “close and seal them, assign the Army to patrol them and so hold them secure till they can be reopened.”

Who knows how many people may have read DeVoto’s story, sighed, and then went about their lives? And this is where Liz’s story turns to the role that destiny plays. It was as though she had been raised to act on DeVoto’s plea, when going about her life meant one thing: Go and help those beleaguered rangers. “And I felt there were other young people,” she adds, “who would love the opportunity to do work that needed to be done. The idea seemed so obvious and simple.”

Obvious and simple, perhaps, to someone whose childhood was spent on Long Island when it was still a verdant landscape of forests and fields; growing up, Liz kept animals and even walked with her pet goat to the post office. “We all need adventure,” her father would say, and he’d tell her about his cavalry days riding after Pancho Villa. He led his family on wilderness expeditions in northern Quebec, which began with their boarding a train in Montreal, then stopping long after midnight “in the middle of nowhere.” Following native guides, they paddled and portaged three days deeper, until they reached a cabin so remote that Liz remembers the sounds of moose grazing in the underbrush, trout splashing, the howl of wolves in the night. She would always say, “The stillness, the quietness, the beauty stayed with me forever.”

But she also knew her father had nearly died from gas attacks in World War I, and her mother had been a miracle birth, a 1-pound preemie whose twin sister did not survive. Her mother, whose New England roots stretched back to the Mayflower, would tell Liz, “We are fortunate to have been given life. But along with that gift should come the question, Why am I here? What can I do with my life that is positive?

Liz pauses. “They were so resilient. They ingrained in my brother and me that if you need to do something, you do it. You simply do it.” And one other thing, she adds, perhaps the most enduring lesson of all that her parents passed along: “All things are possible.”

The road to possible led Liz straight to the office of A. Scott Warthin Jr., her academic adviser and head of Vassar’s geology department. Warthin had recently established a new interdepartmental conservation major, one of the first of its kind in the country. She had this idea, she told him. She wanted to become a conservation major and write her senior thesis on how to create a student conservation corps modeled after the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps. But she didn’t want just to write a paper—she wanted to bring the idea to life.

SCA volunteers clear downed trees in Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve in an effort to protect the nesting sites of red-cockaded woodpeckers against wildfires.
Photo Credit : Erica Barker
Liz Putnam embraces SCA crew members at a youth conference at Vermont’s Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Park in 2015.
Photo Credit : courtesy of the Student Conservation Association

After much interdepartmental pushing and pulling to get her idea approved, Warthin prevailed and found a way for her to get the required credits. Her voice becomes emotional when she describes how they stood together at the Department of the Interior in 1986 to receive conservation awards: Liz and Marty Hayne Talbot, her partner in the Student Conservation Corps (its earliest name) when it was starting out, and her teacher, now ill and frail. “It was the greatest day for me,” Liz says. “It was just before he went into hospital, and he could hardly talk. He just patted the award.” She pauses. “Thank God for that man. He had faith in his kids.”

On this day Liz has just returned from a western tour, during which she met (and hugged) nearly 200 student workers at the Grand Canyon and then traveled six hours south to Saguaro National Park. Over the years she has hugged thousands of student volunteers—many now parents, even grandparents. “When you see these kids and their hopes, you feel great on every level,” she says. 

Liz, whose title with SCA is founding president, has 60 years of stories to tell. They trace how SCA grew from its tenuous grass roots—when her “office” was often the trunk and back seat of her car—into a $35 million nonprofit with a national operations center in Charlestown, New Hampshire, and headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Her voice carries a hint of hoarseness, left over from the trip, but her hands dance in the air as she punctuates SCA milestones along the way. When she closes her eyes in the telling, it’s as though she again is tramping through a forest, stepping lightly on mosses, climbing a mountain. Memories always seem to circle back to chance and destiny—she wonders at the fortuitous meetings with environmental leaders who encouraged her at a time when it would have been easy for her to be daunted. (For instance, at the start she signed fund-raising letters “E. Sanderson Cushman,” aware that women were not yet regarded as strong enough to go into the wilderness and hold their own.) “So many people rescued us,” she says. “Miracle people kept appearing.”

The student corps’ trial run began in the summer of 1957, when Grand Teton National Park and Olympic National Park greeted a few dozen volunteers with hard backcountry work and cabins to live in; Liz had raised just enough funds to give these pioneers room and board. “We went by the seat of our pants that first year,” Liz says. “Marty and I were just two girls figuring things out.” 

Family photos share space in Liz’s den with awards and reminders of her long career. At left is a relief of Liz created by sculptor Larry Nowlan, an SCA alum. On the table, the large photo left of center shows Liz’s father, Edward Sanderson Cushman, who helped instill in his daughter a love of wild places.
Family photos share space in Liz’s den with awards and reminders of her long career. At left is a relief of Liz created by sculptor Larry Nowlan, an SCA alum. On the table, the large photo left of center shows Liz’s father, Edward Sanderson Cushman, who helped instill in his daughter a love of wild places.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

But a few dozen students became a few hundred, then a few thousand, word spreading across the country, from park to park, volunteer to volunteer, that here was an opportunity where need met youth, and the youth came through. Since the first students picked up shovels and axes, more than 80,000 SCA volunteers have worked millions of hours clearing trails, building cabins, fixing bridges, restoring wildlife habitats—whatever needs to be done. And while they are working and exploring, the natural world grabs many and won’t let go: SCA says seven out of every 10 program alumni are now working or studying in an environmental field.

The walls and tables of the Putnam house are lined with Liz’s awards and citations from nearly every notable conservation agency in the country. There’s a photo of President Obama hugging her in 2010 after awarding her the Presidential Citizen Medal. But the memento she might hold most dear is the humble wide-brimmed hat of a park ranger, given to her by the National Park Service, which to her says she is one of them.

One of her proudest accomplishments, though, is not on any wall. For three months in the summer of 1988, wildfires raged through Yellowstone National Park. The next year Liz, at 55, applied to join an SCA crew that, with the need in Yellowstone so great, was taking volunteers of all ages. When she was accepted, she says, “I skipped down the driveway.” The rest of the crew did not know she was SCA’s founder as they worked on a burned-out bridge across a creek, replacing destroyed sections, hauling them away, building it anew. She was covered in soot, sore, tired, and elated.

Morning has turned into afternoon. The tractor has stopped its work in the field. When the conversation turns from the past to today, Liz grows somber for a moment. It’s a feeling she does not easily tolerate in herself—“It’s always better to be hopeful than hopeless,” she says—but she fears for the future of public lands if climate-change deniers and anti-environmentalists sweep into power.

She tells a story that, for her, represents everything she has worked against. A man she once met in Arizona told her that environmentalists were killing America. “He said he had the right to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He didn’t care about climate change because he wouldn’t live long enough to worry about its destructive potential. I said, ‘Don’t you have children?’ He told me it would be their problem, not his.” She sighs at the memory. “Anger does not do you any good,” she chides herself. “If you let anger get control, then everyone gets hurt.”

Instead, she steers her thoughts to what she knows best, and believes in: the power of young people to do good, heading into forests and lakes and streams. “SCA has always given me the feeling of hope for the future,” she says. “When I see the kids in action, it puts life back in me again.”

Liz once had visions of a house full of children (six, to be exact) and a pasture and a barn full of animals. She has the pasture and the barn, and there have been many animals. What life gave her was “one daughter, four stepchildren, and seven stepgrandchildren.” She also has some 80,000 men and women of all ages who connect back to that young woman reading a magazine and deciding to do something that had never been done before.

This June, Liz Putnam will return to Grand Teton National Park for the 60th anniversary celebration of the first student volunteers who reported to work there, back in that summer of 1957. Liz will have turned 84 in April, and she acknowledges there may not be endless milestone anniversaries ahead. She will speak and there will be hugs aplenty. Her message will be the same as it was in 1957, as it has been in all the years that followed: Don’t just look at the trails the kids fix up, or the wildlife habitats they improve, or the bridges they build. The work is just the starting point. The important stuff happens later, when a kid finds out that after a bridge is built you don’t just put the tools away and leave. After a bridge is built, you can walk across and find what waits on the other side.