For 25 years, the conservation training center has been training nature guardians

Come to light, let nature be your master.

—William Wordsworth (1798)

The National Conservation Training Center celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. This hidden federal facility, nestled along the Potomac River in Shepherdstown, has seen more than 250,000 conservationists enter its campus and hopefully return home to make the world a better place.

The NCTC is not a park, forest or wildlife refuge. Rather, it is a watering hole for conservationists and the headquarters of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

It’s a “conservation college” – perhaps its closest analog is the US Army War College to the north.

When NCTC was originally conceived, the dream was to have a top-notch educational facility that would encompass all aspects of the environment. Course offerings are as diverse as nature itself.

A small sample includes fisheries science, geographic information systems mapping, leadership courses, and wildlife law enforcement.

The diversity and breadth of the courses are a constant reminder of the challenges of managing an ever-changing environment for its wildlife inhabitants and human visitors. If the NCTC had an official motto, it would be “Conservation Through Education”.

Still, there’s a lot more going on at the NCTC. The NCTC hosted two presidents (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) and world leaders during the Middle East peace talks in 2000.

It also hosted perhaps the largest gathering of nature literature in history. In partnership with the Orion Company, the NCTC has provided a platform for our country’s most eloquent voices for nature, ranging from Wendell Berry to Bill McKibben to Barry Lopez and Peter Mathiessen.

The NCTC Eagle Cam provides a bird's eye view of bald eagles nesting with their babies.

Yet despite the many human luminaries, by far the most popular visitors to the NCTC are the nesting eagles.

For 20 years, various pairs of eagles have remained in their large nest atop a giant sycamore tree while humans spy on them (and their eaglets) discreetly via the NCTC Eagle Cam. The annual domestic scenes of feeding, teaching, and finally getting their children out of the nest resonate with many parents in the tri-state area.

Although NCTC is primarily a student-centric campus, non-Eagle neighbors are also welcome to visit at various open houses, the American Conservation Film Festival, and a 25-year-running free public lecture series sponsored by by the Friends of the NCTC. The public lecture series has hosted plays, films, authors, scientists – and even a gray wolf on a memorable visit.

A lot has changed since the NCTC opened in 1997.

In 1997 the first Harry Potter book was released, the movie Titanic was a box office hit and a new thing called WiFi was invented.

Things have also changed at the NCTC.

Overhead projectors and slides have given way to PPTs and iPads. Our students have become more diverse and even younger as we welcome native high school students for an annual Tribal Convention and the best, brightest, and most diverse college students for our Leadership Scholars program.

But what remains consistent is NCTC’s mission to train the current generation and the next generation of conservationists to protect our planet.

In this way, NCTC is a hidden treasure in our backyard.

Mark Madison lives in Hagerstown and worked at NCTC for 23 of his 25 years.

Back To Top