SCA’s Greater Yellowstone Recovery Corps (GYRC)

Historic leadership in response to environmental crisis

By Jay A. Satz

In the summer of 1988, two fairly typical forest fires were burning in different districts of Yellowstone National Park, but I was so busy managing SCA activity in the Northwest that I hadn’t noticed. That changed in early August when the blazes merged, more fires started, and the phones in SCA’s Seattle office started ringing off the hook.  Parents of SCA’s high school-aged conservation crew members serving at Yellowstone were desperate for assurances about their children’s safety.

A “perfect storm” of a dry summer, an abandoned campfire, a lot of lightning, and over one hundred years of ecologically unsound fire suppression was rapidly leading to one of the greatest conflagrations of the 20th century.

SCA crew leaders Alicia Spence and George Tempest and their crew of ten members were deep in the backcountry in the southern part of the park. They had been moved twice already by the park service to avoid fires. In the midst of what was going to be both the biggest physical and political firestorm in the history of the park, it was to their great credit that the public was allowed continued access and work like SCA continued.

The story of these fires is well known.  Almost half of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres was impacted and despite the massive firefighting effort, only the heavy snows of November finally smothered the flames.  Less noticed was the visit in smoky late summer by SCA staff member Carroll Vogel, who toured the park with key park service staff and began to lay the ground work for the largest public restoration program in both NPS and SCA history. I had no idea yet how this event capturing world wide attention would personally affect me.

By late autumn, the NPS staff at Yellowstone was just able to catch their breath and start evaluating the work that lay ahead.  Hundreds of bridges and trail structures were lost and miles of trails obliterated.  Roads were littered with downed timber, miles of fire line scars were left over from firefighting, and the fire-charred landscape posed great erosion risks.

SCA offered the National Park Service its support, and working cooperatively with the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps (NASCC) began the planning process for SCA’s Greater Yellowstone Recovery Corps. As the magnitude of the damage became apparent through the winter, the program’s scope eventually expanded beyond Yellowstone to include restoration work in neighboring Grand Teton National Park and six surrounding National Forests.

There were 64 crews that first summer, serving three week rotations that were so logistically complex that each deployment of crews were labeled Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and all the way to Kilo just to keep track of them. It was my great fortune to be slated as a co-crew leader for “India 3” in the remote backcountry of the Snake River District in September, one of 20 SCA crews of volunteer high school students from all corners of the United States. Another 25 crews from service and conservation corps from California to the Virgin Islands, from Minnesota to Florida rotated through. And in perhaps the most innovative programming from SCA at that time, hundreds of citizens from around the US and the world came to the park to serve in a series of week-long teams, including SCA founder Liz Putnam in her first opportunity to serve in the groundbreaking program she created.

They all came because they wanted to serve the world’s first national park in its time of need, many camping deep in grizzly country without any incident. Working side by side with the tremendous NPS staff at the park the accomplishments of the recovery corps were astounding:

  • 648 volunteers providing more than 100,000 hours of conservation service
  • 402 teenaged volunteers from all backgrounds and walks of life
  • 246 adult volunteers representing the general public and corporate supporters
  • volunteers from 46 states and 15 other countries
  • 87 work sites throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
  • 103,529 feet of constructed, reconstructed, or maintained trail
  • 63 bridges built, totaling 1,764 feet
  • 2,311 linear feet of turnpike constructed
  • 5,210 linear feet of trail revegetation
  • 117 water bars and check dams installed
  • Yellowstone’s first barrier-free trail to the backcountry built, a wheelchair access trail to Ice Lake

More difficult to measure was the profound connections forged by crew members, volunteers and staff, both with the park, and with each other.

SCA itself was changed forever because of our leadership and success at both an unprecedented scope and for the first time, in the public eye.

Despite the controversy of the park’s “let it burn” policy for the natural fires, Superintendent Bob Barbee’s courage was rewarded by support from the highest level of the National Park Service and public calls for his removal we appropriately ignored.

And after an exhilarating, challenging and sometimes exhausting summer, my “India 3” co-leader Meg Hafer and I pulled off the last crazy logistical feat of the year by getting married.

Author information: Jay has led five SCA conservation crews, instructed over 30 SCA conservation work skills programs and been a full time staff member at SCA since 1988.

He used many of the lessons learned that amazing summer to help develop SCA’s Mount Rainier Recovery Initiative in 2007. Jay and Meg live in Seattle with their two children Rory and Lily, part of SCA’s next generation of conservation stewards.

Read about some of the Greater Yellowstone Recovery Corps members at our 75,000+ Member page