In 2008, Student Conservation Association President Dale Penny declared that protecting public lands was not simply "quaint or nice."
"There has been a time over the past few decades when … people would talk about conservation when they were talking about preventing erosion in your backyard, or maybe preserving a plot from development, or even putting a piece of land into a conservation easement for perpetuity," he told a gathering of SCA volunteers, many of them sporting bandanas and sunglasses.
"All really good things.… But, today, I think everything's different.… Conserving our environment is not quaint or nice anymore. It's not simply a worthwhile thing to do. In the 21st century, our planet is obviously more fragile than we earlier thought. The reality of climate change is more obvious, and the need for our entire society to assume responsibility for the future is more acute than ever."
Last week Penny announced that he would be retiring after 16 years as head of the SCA. With a reedy voice reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart, the lantern-jawed 64-year-old has been a charismatic leader for an organization that has experienced dramatic growth in recent decades.
Under Penny, the SCA's volunteer corps has increased from 2,000 to more than 4,200. The group has also emerged as an incubator for conservationists: According to a recent National Park Service estimate, 12 percent of the agency's personnel were at one time SCA volunteers. One notable alumna is Rhea Suh, a top-ranking official at the Interior Department.
"It's one thing to get people out to explore in the outdoors and enjoy it," Penny said. "It's another when you engage them in doing something that is helping preserve or protect the land. They're investing in it, and then they become the real stewards of our environment. They become lifelong conservation citizens at that point."
The Texas native, who was president and COO of the youth-development group Up with People before arriving at SCA, has also tried to engage minorities by launching restoration projects in urban areas. After Hurricane Sandy lashed New York City in 2012, SCA partnered with the Interior Department and New York City on a multiyear program to rehabilitate damaged areas in the tri-state area.
"During my time here, we set out very distinctly to ensure that conservation is relevant to and inclusive of America's changing diverse population," Penny said.
The SCA, which is modeled on the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, was established in 1957 by Liz Putnam. (In 2010, Putnam was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, becoming the first conservationist to receive the honor.) At the time of its founding, the SCA was one of the only organizations to combine conservation and public service. "This was before President Kennedy's 'Ask not' speech, and it was before the Peace Corps," Penny said. "It was a radical idea back then."
Raised in a farm community in East Texas, Penny attended Texas A&M University-Commerce and worked for eight consecutive summers at an outdoor summer camp. After a stint as senior program director of the Colorado Boys Ranch Foundation, a nonproﬁt organization dedicated to serving troubled and at-risk youth, he spent 25 years with Up with People, the highlight of which was a 1985 trip to China at a time when the communist regime was still closed to most U.S.-based groups.
Penny has two children and lives with his wife in Washington.
This article appears in the January 13, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.