Apostle of Conservation Retiring After Four Decades in Youth Development

Dale Penny is retiring as leader of the Student Conservation Association. January 2014
National Journal
Christopher Snow Hopkins
See more stories about...
Christopher Snow Hopkins
Jan. 12, 2014, 7:35 a.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
WITHER TRUMP?
Jon Stewart May Debut on HBO Before the Election
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Jon Stewart could arrive on HBO in time for the November presidential election. In a Paley Media Council interview Thursday with CNN’s Brian Stelter, HBO CEO Richard Plepler was asked whether viewers could expect to see Stewart, former host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” on HBO before the general election. 'Yeah, I’m hopeful,' Plepler said."

Source:
ALL RIDERS TO BE AFFECTED
Metro to Begin Rolling Closures Next Month
5 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Beginning next month, Metro will begin a series of "about 15 separate large-scale work projects," each of which will close down stations and/or sections of track for up to weeks at a time. The entire initiative is expected to take about a year. The Washington Post has a list of the schedule of closures, and which lines and stations they'll affect.

Source:
ANOTHER MEETING WITH PRIEBUS
Trump to Meet with Ryan, Leadership Next Week
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

A day after saying he could not yet support Donald Trump's presidential bid, House Speaker Paul Ryan has invited the billionaire to a meeting in Washington next week with House leadership. Ryan and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus will also meet separately with Trump. 

Source:
‘EXACTING STANDARDS’
Obama on Trump: ‘This Is a Really Serious Job’
6 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"President Obama used the White House podium on Friday to dismiss Donald Trump as an unserious candidate to succeed him, and said leading the country isn't a job that's suited to reality show antics." At a briefing with reporters, the president said, "I just want to emphasize the degree to which we are in serious times and this is a really serious job. This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show. This is a contest for the presidency of the United States. And what that means is that every candidate, every nominee needs to be subject to exacting standards and genuine scrutiny."

Source:
MORE EXECUTIVE ORDERS
Panama Papers Spur White House to Crack Down on Evasion
8 hours ago
THE DETAILS

In the The White House on Thursday night unveiled a series of executive actions to combat money laundering—"among the most comprehensive response yet to the Panama Papers revelations." The president's orders will tighten transparency rules, close loopholes that allow "foreigners to hide financial activity behind anonymous entities in the U.S., and demand stricter “customer due diligence” rules for banks.

Source:
×