Conservation Closer to Home

Photo: Student Conservation Association

How Public Lands and the Student Conservation Association’s Urban Green Crews work to protect Pittsburgh’s outdoor assets.

A brand-new bridge built in Riverview Park. A flooded trail rehabilitated in McKinley Park. A thickly forested slope transformed into a hiking trail connecting a middle school campus to the Seldom Seen Greenway: There’s no question that the Pittsburgh Young Adult BIPOC Roving Crew of the Student Conservation Association (SCA) made its mark on the parks and trails of the Steel City. But the SCA is betting that the months last fall spent swinging trail-building tools and clearing overgrowth made just as deep of a mark on the crew itself.

“It’s not like other work,” says 21-year-old Jewharu Williams, one of the five 2021 crew members. “It’s very impactful on the land. Conservation is one of my big things, and [SCA] put that into perspective for me. I knew I wanted to help the planet in some way, but I didn’t know what that was called. I’ve really enjoyed it.”

The Pittsburgh team, made up of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25, is one of the SCA’s Urban Green Crews. Rather than working on conservation projects in far-flung national parks or forests, these teams focus on the close-to-home parks that provide so many people with a vital connection to nature. All five members of the Pittsburgh crew live in the city.

“One of the reasons why it’s important for our youth to work in urban areas is so they can learn about the opportunities to experience nature within their communities and neighborhoods,” says Kelly Runzel, Senior Director of Corporate and Community Engagement for SCA. “And we feel that there’s a future in it for our youth. They can receive good-paying green jobs within their local communities and become leaders in solving some of the environmental justice and conservation problems in their neighborhoods.” 

This Pittsburgh urban crew was also one of SCA’s affinity crews, made up of members of marginalized communities. The Public Lands Fund* supported SCA with a $100,000 grant to expand its Pittsburgh program with a team comprising of self-identified Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) young adults. All members of this particular crew self-identified as Black. 

The idea, Runzel says, is to create a safe place for youth to experience nature and outdoor recreation, “and we believe that doing so with an affinity community will help create that environment of safety.” She adds that there’s a ripple effect of positivity outdoors when the public sees people of color and youth of different affinities together experiencing nature in a safe way. SCA also offers affinity crews specifically for the Latinx, American Sign Language, LGBTQ, and low- to moderate-income communities. 

Besides the team fellowship and the opportunity to get their hands dirty improving their neighborhood green spaces on projects like removing invasive weeds, building new trails, and clearing deadfall, the Pittsburgh crew also enjoyed weekly environmental education days. Those outings encompassed everything from learning about water quality to going kayaking and rock climbing. Four members also earned their Wilderness First Aid certifications, and all five were certified in adult CPR. What’s more, the gig paid more than the city’s minimum wage. “We understand [pay] is a barrier for equity as well,” Runzel notes.

And for at least some members, the inspiration extended to additional conservation work. Williams is currently interning at an urban farm in an SCA-Americorps partnership role, and the crew leader is now a full-time SCA employee. Another member reflects, “I want to keep working in a job that keeps me outside,” looking forward to other career prospects—ones that all started in the parks right down the block.

* Public Lands donates 1% of all sales to the Public Lands Fund, a program of the Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation, which supports organizations that are protecting public lands and increasing access & equity in the outdoors.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.