The heat and humidity had risen into the mid-80s well before noon, but the steamy weather wasn’t slowing Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam ’55 down. Clad in jeans, a T-shirt, and well-worn leather gloves, Putnam strode purposefully up a path at the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve on the morning of September 11 and pronounced herself ready for work.
Over the next three days, 40 participants from the Student Conservation Association (SCA), founded by Putnam, and more than 200 Vassar volunteers planted nearly 1,100 trees on the site to help curb erosion along two nearby streams. SCA workers also cut through invasive Oriental bittersweet vines that were choking hundreds of trees on the 530-acre preserve, and they built boardwalks over some wetlands at two sites—one of which had been flooded last year by a dam built by a pair of beavers.
Putnam founded the organization in 1957, two years after she wrote her Vassar senior thesis proposing the idea. Since then, more than 70,000 young people have been doing one-year stints with the SCA (now affiliated with AmeriCorps), carrying out conservation projects throughout the country. But this one was special, Putnam says, because it was the first to be done on the Vassar campus.
“This is where it all began, and I am just blown away by this project and all the people who helped bring it together,” she says.
Many of those who brought the project together were from Vassar. A current student, biology major Carrie Perkins ’14, conceived the idea for the tree planting. A 2012 graduate, Sara Gabrielson, mapped out plans for the removal of the invasive vines, and SCA intern Elise Heffernan, a classmate of Gabrielson’s, designed the boardwalks that were built over the wetlands. Funding for the project was provided through grants from the SCA and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
The volunteers came from everywhere in the Vassar community. Most of the women’s field hockey and lacrosse teams showed up to help. So did the men’s and women’s rugby teams, as well as students from several science classes. Others decided to come out on their own after reading a campus-wide email from Dean of the College Christopher Roellke.
Putnam first conceived of the idea for a youth conservation corps in 1953, when she read an article in Harper’s Magazine entitled “Let’s Close the National Parks.” Through a series of other Vassar connections, Putnam says she was able to pitch the idea to top officials in the National Park Service, and the first volunteers—53 high school, college, and graduate students—reported for duty two years later at Olympic and Grand Teton national parks.
Putnam has remained active with the SCA ever since, and last year, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian honor in the United States, for her lifelong environmental work. Putnam also received the 2010 Spirit of Vassar Award for her work with the SCA.
Speaking to the SCA volunteers at a farewell luncheon, Putnam urged them to use the event as a springboard for future endeavors. “Wherever you go for the rest of your lives, remember this and do more good work,” she said.