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“Let’s Close the National Parks,” the headline in Harper’s Magazine screams. A guardrail breaks, the article says, and a little girl almost tumbles into a gorge; bridges teeter; the limited park ranger force rushes to fight fires, pick up trash, and clean latrines, instead of patrolling parks; wages have dropped, as have the number of rangers, while park attendance has climbed tenfold over the past 15 years. National Parks are in crisis!

The year is 1953, and Bernard DeVoto’s dire assessment reaches an idealistic nature-loving Vassar College sophomore in upstate New York. She starts thinking.

That young woman was Elizabeth Cushman, better known now as Shaftsbury resident Liz Putnam. Her story is an alchemy of intelligence, persistence, openness and, she argues, chance.

It was chance that her assigned faculty advisor at Vassar was Dr. A. Scott Warthin, Jr., head of the geology department. The college was thinking about offering an interdepartmental conservation major, with three departments working together: plant science, zoology and geology. At that point it was not available, but Warthin offered Liz the opportunity to become a geology major and write a thesis on her concept: a proposal for a Student Conservation Corps, a modern day corps of students, modeled on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps that had ended a decade earlier.

Her idea was that students could pick up trash and relieve rangers of other menial work. This solution would tap into high school, college and graduate students’ desire to make a difference and support just-emerging environmental programs. Her youth-centered idea came years before President John F. Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps.

Nowadays, Liz says “circumstances that are unknown” launched her idea. Bertha Mather McPherson, a friend of her cousin, wanted to talk with Liz about her thesis. So Liz traveled to Connecticut to talk with McPherson, who wound up saying, “That’s a very interesting idea you have.” Later, she called Liz and said, “My father’s best friend would like to talk with you.”

“So I went to New York, met Mr. (Horace) Albright and, after listening to my concept, he asked, ‘Have you visited any national parks recently?’”

“‘No,’ I said.”

“‘You know — that’s a very good idea you’ve got.’”

“‘Thank you, sir.’”

“‘You’ve got to go and talk to the park superintendents. See what they think.’”

Liz remembers thinking, “Sure, they’d be thrilled to see a girl with a piece of paper, saying, ‘I have an idea.’” To Albright, she said, “That sounds fine.”

“‘What are you doing this summer?’”

“‘I’m going to be a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding… in Portland, Oregon.”

“‘Oh, that’s great —how does Olympic and Mount Rainier sound?’”

“‘Beautiful, yes sir, lovely’.”

“‘What other national parks would you like to visit?’”

Liz was so dumbstruck, she couldn’t think of one.

“‘How about Yellowstone and Grand Teton?’” Albright asked.

Liz remembers suddenly taking dictation from Albright — having to jot down names and addresses of superintendents on an old envelope she found in her purse and jamming the envelope into her small pocketbook, “already filled with other stuff.”

She left the office, committed to writing to each park superintendent to schedule a meeting — but also realizing she somehow would be paying for travel because the Park Service had no funding.

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All this was at the behest of Albright, who Liz later learned was the first director of the National Park Service. Liz also learned that McPherson was the daughter of Albright’s good friend, Stephen Mather, the founder of the National Park Service.

“Life is amazing!” Liz observes today.

Instead of crediting her intelligence and persistence for launching herself into helpful circumstances and creating what became the Student Conservation Association (SCA), Liz instead cites a dog named Mac.

Mac was the McPhersons’ dog.

Had Mac not been lonesome for the McPherson kids, who were away at college, he wouldn’t have hung out at Liz’s cousin’s house, home to three young children who always wanted a dog. Later Mac became a permanent and well-loved member of the cousins’ family. Had that not happened, Liz’s cousin would not have become good friends with Bertha Mather McPherson.

Thus, without Mac, the SCA, which has since placed over 100,000 students in national parks, and forests, and influenced the trajectory of hundreds of thousands of lives more, would never have existed.

Of course, Liz Putnam, despite her modesty and emphasis on “circumstances that are unknown,” deserves some credit. She in turn credits the power of teamwork.

Her first teammate, Martha Hayne Talbot, another Vassar alumna, joined her on the trip to visiting the four national parks in 1955 and, as a teammate, helped pull the program together until she married Lee Talbot in 1958 and moved to Africa to help him with his work on international wildlife.

Ailene Kane Rogers was also crucial to the SCA teamwork, especially when the office unexpectedly had to move from Washington D.C. to New York City, and then to Long Island.

Liz led SCA from 1957, until the late 60’s when she and her young child, both ill, had to move to Arizona to recuperate. In 1987, she was accorded by the SCA’s Board of Directors the permanent title of founding president.

Early on she battled such prejudice against women that she featured her middle name when signing her business letters: “E. Sanderson Cushman.” A young ranger at a park laughed even at the idea of a woman becoming a park ranger. “Can you imagine anything funnier than a woman in a park ranger hat?” he asked.

Thirty years later, the National Park Service named Liz an honorary park ranger and presented her with her own ranger’s hat.

SCA also offered positions for 15-18 year old students to help do much needed back country work, gradually phasing in the work for girls, too. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the prevailing thinking was “Girls couldn’t , wouldn’t and shouldn’t do that type of work,” Liz says. But in 1968, SCA was able to try a back country program — staffed entirely with high school girls — both at Mt. Rainier National Park and here in Vermont, the Merck Forest and Farmland in Rupert. Both programs were very successful, and opportunities for both girls and boys have flourished ever since.

Over the years, Liz Putnam worked with various administrations and received numerous awards including one in 2010 presented by President Barack Obama, whom she calls, “a man with a heart.” He has a real love “for the earth itself.” She has met powerful people, and finds Obama rare in his authenticity. In almost the same breath, she unexpectedly includes another leader: Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who “had a heart as big as the whole outdoors.”

She digresses to tell a story. As a young woman after the war, she had visited Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and his wife in California, who were friends of her family. The admiral recently had received a letter, which he shared with Liz.

A young sailor was describing a time after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Survivors were moving through the debris. During a break at night, an older man appeared from the dark, and began talking with the men working in the chaos.

After talking with them all for a little while, he moved on. The letter writer himself apparently asked, ”Doesn’t that old guy know there’s a war on?” To which one of the other men retorted, “I hope so. That was Admiral Nimitz.”

Apparently, Nimitz couldn’t appear while in his uniform, since it would elicit responses suitable to only his rank, so he came alone, out of uniform to talk with the men personally. It was hell for everyone out there, Nimitz told Liz later, but he wanted to be there with the men; he wanted them to know that they were in this together.

The telling of the story decades later speaks also of Liz Putnam’s self-effacing leadership, which has been largely in the service of the public land around us. Now, approaching 90 years old, she lives here in Shaftsbury, and her actions over decades give weight to her feelings of this place and the land itself:

“I feel we are so lucky to live here: the peace, the tranquility, the beauty. I hope to God we never destroy it.”

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