Does picking up trash constitute conservation?

Scouts serve their communities in many ways. One popular way involves picking up litter, thereby keeping their hometowns, parks and local environments clean.

Some of these efforts are global, while others have been part of awards. Every Star Scout seeking to advance to the next rank must contribute six hours of service, at least three of which must be conservation related. But what exactly does “conservation-related” mean? Does it include picking up trash?

The question

We’ve received questions from Scouters regarding how intensive a conservation effort should be to fulfill requirements, whether it’s for rank advancement or the BSA Distinguished Conservation Service Awards. Here are a few such inquiries:

Is picking up trash along the road in a suburb considered a conservation effort or regular service?

Does building a retaining wall in a backyard to stop erosion count? Or does it have to be something wildlife-related?

Can fixing eroding trails at summer camp count?

Is restoring a piece of artwork conservation-related? What about protecting antiquities or maintaining a monument?

The expert’s response

We’ve addressed the requirements for the BSA Distinguished Conservation Service Awards and, no, a trash clean-up day would likely not qualify. To count for the prestigious award — the BSA’s highest honor for conservation and environmental service — Scouts would need to plan and carry out projects that have a long-lasting impact.

Does the same level of commitment apply to Scouts BSA rank advancement? We asked Brian Gray, the BSA’s national director of conservation, who says it can be difficult to define but is up to the unit’s leadership.

“The definition of conservation is that it is the act of protecting Earth’s natural resources for current and future generations,” Gray says.

(So, no, it’s not about preserving manmade artifacts. If your Scout is interested in learning those techniques, check out the Archaeology or Collections merit badges.)

Photo courtesy of Isabella McCoy

Can picking up trash protect the Earth’s natural resources? It could, especially if it inspires more people to be aware of the impact they’re making on the environment. That leaves some room for interpretation, though projects like building a trail or removing an invasive species would more likely have a lasting effect.

What’s more important, though, is looking at the intent behind the requirement.

“We encourage units to help guide the Scouts to projects that they are capable of and of things that can help them grow as Scouts,” Gray says.

Conservation service teaches Scouts to study the world around them. Scouts can see the beauty of nature and how resilient — yet how fragile — it can be. It shows how humans affect nature and that we should consider our impact on this planet.

So, keep picking up trash. According to the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful, there’s 50 billion pieces of litter across this country that can be collected. But also challenge Scouts to think beyond what they see along the roadways and consider other ways they can help the environment.

About Michael Freeman 350 Articles
Michael Freeman, an Eagle Scout, is an associate editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines.