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Dirty work

September 13, 2013

Dirty work

September 13, 2013

Skidmore’s Student Conservation Corps gets down and dirty in and out of the classroom.

It’s a hot, sticky day in August and 13 students have just emerged from a thickly wooded trail. They are tired, sweaty, and hungry, and they are going back for more. They are the members of the Skidmore Student Conservation Corps (SSCC)—small in number, but mighty.  

Skidmore's Student Conservation Corps
The Skidmore Student Conservation
Corps at
Wilton Wildlife Park
& Preserve.

The SSCC was established in 2012 jointly by Michael Marx, director of the Environmental Studies Program and associate professor of English, and former coordinator of Sustainable Skidmore, Riley Neugebauer.  The first corps had just five students.  This semester, Marx shares the leadership duties with Rachel Willis, Sustainable Skidmore fellow and Anne Ernst, Environmental Studies program coordinator. Funded by a grant from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, the corps grew out students’ desire to get “down and dirty,” says Marx.

And they are definitely getting dirty. In their August project at the Wilton Wildlife Park and Preserve just a few miles from campus, they're trimming trees, clearing trails, and building fences.  The goal is to maintain habitat for the Karner Blue Butterfly, an endangered species that has a wingspan of about one inch and lives only in dry, open areas with lupine, a tall blue wildflower. Although the tiny butterfly can be found in other states, the only place it is found in New York is along the 55-mile stretch from Glens Falls to Albany, with Saratoga right in the middle.

“Having a nice, big work crew of willing, young, strong people has been great,” says Kathy O’Brien, wildlife biologist for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “We cleared the areas so the mower can come in and get to work maintaining habitat for the Karner Blue.” The students helped clear trails for humans as well, giving better visibility and ensuring safety for preserve visitors.

“I definitely hope to do conservation work after I graduate,” says Charlie Lovejoy ’16. “Maybe not specifically clearing trails, but something like this. I don’t think I would have even known about this opportunity if it weren’t for the Student Conservation Corps.”

Marx explains that one of the group’s many benefits is the way it blends the physical with the intellectual, providing each member with one academic credit hour as well as hands-on experience. “If you look back at the history of Skidmore when Lucy Skidmore Scribner founded the College, there was this sense of ‘mind and hand.’ That’s what conservation work is all about, giving the students a chance to exercise their hands with physical work alongside their minds with intellectual work,” he says. 

Other corps activities include cleanup days in Skidmore’s own North Woods, faculty lectures, and even a spoon-carving workshop, where students craft their own spoons from branches.  In the classroom (and during the winter), corps students read articles about conservation work that relate to their academic interests. Marx says the topics ranged from the expected environmental studies to connections to business and management.

The SCCC meets biweekly during the semester to discuss their work and readings, and to plan future projects.  This year’s agenda includes a return to Wilton Wildlife Park and Preserve, helping out Saratoga P.L.A.N., and working with North Woods stewards to build a boardwalk for the woodland’s red trail.

For Cate Jestin Taylor ’14, hands-on science has made all the difference. “When it came to picking colleges, it was between a liberal arts school and an art school. I really wanted to go an art school, but the main reason I chose Skidmore is because I could do both science and art.” She entered as an environmental studies major, intending to switch down the road, but never did. “I’ve been happy every semester.”

Photos by Joe Levy.

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