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
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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.

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