Removing timber, burning underbrush – is this conservation?

Scouts are charged with doing their best to be “conservation minded.” When knowledge translates into action, this often looks like helping a pollinator species, installing structures to prevent erosion and planting native vegetation. These are great conservation projects, ideal for youth working on a conservation-related award or merit badge.

Conservation work is a year-round endeavor for many BSA properties and council camps. This work can include similar projects, but also adds professional staff removing overgrown brush and conducting controlled burns.

On the surface, this work might seem counter-productive. Shouldn’t wild places just stay wild?

“We want nature to stand still and stay the same as when we camped as a kid, and nature never stands still,” says John Feick, Scout executive for the Ozark Trails Council.

Challenges compound for land that people have already developed.

Being good stewards

The BSA operates hundreds of camps across the country, including four national high-adventure bases. That’s thousands of acres to manage, each with unique needs, as well as native flora and fauna to consider.

Choosing to do nothing can be a management approach, but it might not be the best choice for the area.

“There’s no textbook to tell us what to do for every site,” says Michael Huneke, a program manager with the U.S. Forest Service and committee chair for the BSA Distinguished Conservation Service Award program. “That’s why forestry is an art and a science. Every site is different; ultimately, every outcome is different. You can’t assume that if it’s green, it’s good.”

That seemingly lush area could be engulfed with invasive species that are choking out native species. When you get rid of overgrown brush and trees, you reduce the competition for space and sunlight. Seeds that have sat dormant for years can finally sprout. When native grasses and wildflowers are allowed to grow, animals, like deer, birds and rodents, are encouraged to make the place home.

Removing fallen trees and dense vegetation also helps mitigate wildfire risks. Wildfires can devastate a local ecosystem, especially when fires have been suppressed for decades, thus building up unnatural amounts of dead trees, fallen leaves and underbrush – basically fire fuel.

However, if used properly, fire can be utilized for reducing that fuel while nourishing the soil.

“Fire is a natural part of the landscape,” says David Kenneke, Philmont Scout Ranch’s director of ranching and conservation.

Using resources

Implementing prescribed burns is another method for helping maintain environmental balance. Most ecosystems have fire as part of its cycle, according to the National Park Service. Sometimes, it’s a decade-long cycle or even a century-long cycle in higher elevations, Kenneke says. When people fight to eliminate fires, the cycle gets thrown off.

“There’s a difference in wildland fires,” says Tim Russell, a wildlife biologist, wildland firefighter and outdoor ethics advocate for the Ozark Trails Council. “We’re introducing it back into the system, so it’s not devastating.”

Large-scale conservation efforts that BSA professionals do are carried out with the advice and guidance of certified foresters and other experts.

“We have to be stewards of the camps we’ve been blessed with,” Huneke says. “Conservation is a wise use of the resources.”

Conservation is about being thrifty and living sustainably. It’s about managing and using resources to ensure that they can provide for the needs of current and future generations. It’s about making decisions and taking action to prevent overuse, neglect or destruction of those resources, and it’s about good citizenship.

Scouts practice conservation in many ways: projects in their communities, conserving energy at home and promoting outdoor ethics. National and council staff members strive to make decisions to ensure camps remain healthy for years to come. If you want resources to teach your Scouts “conservation minded” principles or learn more yourself, check out the following resources:

“If we teach our youth to appreciate and value natural resources, they’ll be the ones to step up and defend it,” Russell says.

Read it in Scout Life

Your Scout can read about how he or she can help with conservation efforts at Philmont Scout Ranch in the March edition of Scout Life magazine. Philmont ranks as the world’s largest youth camp with more than 140,000 acres.

When Scouts trek at the high-adventure base in New Mexico, they complete a service project. It’s part of earning the iconic Philmont expedition arrowhead patch. March’s edition not only highlights service projects Scouts can do, but also the many exciting treks available at Philmont.

Subscribing to Scout Life can give you and your Scout ideas for serving your community and local environment – plus, there’s a lot of fun features, comics and jokes, too!


About Michael Freeman 446 Articles
Michael Freeman, an Eagle Scout, is an associate editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines.