Friday, June 29, 2007

Rebuilding Rainier vol. 2.2

The second issue of this summer's volunteer newsletter is now available! This issue will introduce you to the Student Conservation Association and other partners who are so instrumental in helping us to make the most effective use of our volunteers. Plus, we have new volunteer opportunities to announce--including a 4th of July parade to march in! Check it out!

Recovery Update: Progress Being Made!

Significant progress is being made to reestablish public access to Mount Rainier National Park. To date, more than 45 work parties have been organized, with roughly 400 volunteers giving more than 3,000 hours to storm recovery...

Read more on the Northwest Storm Recovery Coalition Blog!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Field Notes

Things are hopping at Mount Rainier National Park! Summer is now officially here (the five inches of fresh snow at Sunrise on Monday notwithstanding), and every day exciting things are happening.

On Thursday last week, I traveled up to Seattle to attend the Student Conservation Association's 50th Anniversary Celebration. I got to meet the founder of SCA, who is still vivacious, energetic, and an exceptional speaker; and our superintendent, Dave Uberuaga, received an environmental leadership award. On Friday, SCA's Board of Directors visited the park, toured the Recovery Corps encampment in the Longmire Campground, and then joined us for a few hours of hard work on the Wonderland Trail reroute near Cougar Rock Campground. It's great to see the leadership of a group like SCA roll up their sleeves and pitch in on the front lines. (For a first-hand perspective, check out Kevin Hamilton's entry for June 23rd on SCA's blog.)
We're proud to be part of SCA's 50th anniversary, and pleased to have this unique partnership with them as we continue our flood recovery efforts. SCA's contribution is valued at nearly $700,000, and they have committed to raising hundreds of thousands in additional funds to support our programs as well.

Meanwhile, we were busy with several volunteer projects over the weekend, including Meadow Rover training at Paradise and Sunrise, which brought in a total of 49 volunteers between the two locations--good news for those fragile environments. Next week will be just as busy, with the first of our week-long wilderness trail projects and some family-oriented projects, among others. The Mount Rainier Recovery Corps will be working on four simultaneous projects on the 4th of July!

And let's not forget the dedicated corps of volunteers who were already part of our team before "Recovery" became one of our priorities. You'll see volunteers all over the park, working alongside our uniformed rangers, in the visitor centers and on the trails, helping to protect the park and serve its visitors, and having the time of their lives.
To all of you, thank you. And to SCA, Happy Birthday!

Monday, June 25, 2007

The role of volunteers in National Parks

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to an article in "High Country News" about the benefits of the National Park Service's growing volunteer program—and concerns about what this may mean for the future of the Service. I've mulled over the article long enough, unfortunately, that you can now only read the first few paragraphs without subscribing, but the gist of the argument is that volunteers are gradually replacing paid professional employees, leading to both decreasing quality of service and an incentive to underfund the parks.

The argument seems persuasive. It is true that a professional workforce is, on balance, probably more effective than a team of weekend volunteers. I am, myself, proud to be part of an ongoing effort to professionalize the interpretive profession in the National Park Service, with new research-based training methods, established standards, and a robust national program to provide peer review for rangers in the field. Most volunteers (with some notable exceptions) do not have time to keep up with such things, simply by virtue of the fact that they have their own lives and professions apart from their service as volunteers.

It is also true that in many places the number of paid employees has declined while the number of volunteers has grown. Volunteers are not supposed to displace paid employees. It says so explicitly in the Volunteers in Parks Act of 1969 that established the volunteer program in the National Park Service (16 USC 18g). And yet, it often does seem that volunteers today are doing jobs once filled by people in green and gray uniforms. This usually occurs because funding got tight first, and when managers were no longer able to afford ranger salaries, they turned to volunteers to get the job done. As a Yosemite ranger says in the High Country News article, "If you don’t have the money to hire a ranger in a campground, do you not provide the service to the visitors, or do you have a volunteer fill that role?"

Ideally, as Park Service budgets wax, those positions will turn green and gray again, just as they turned to volunteers when budgets waned. But it would also be tragic to see the volunteer program decline just because our paid positions increase. In fact, there are several reasons to hope that exactly the opposite would be the case. Our volunteer programs provide tremendous benefits to our National Parks that go far beyond simply filling in the gaps in our organization chart.

First, the constant emphasis on how much work volunteers get done completely misses the most important thing we gain from their service. "In Fiscal year 2005, 137,000 volunteers donated 5.2 million hours to your national parks at a value of $91.2 million," proclaims the NPS website. I’ve plugged the statistics myself: 43,844 volunteer hours last year at Mount Rainier, contributed by 924 individuals. "We could not protect Mount Rainier’s resources, nor serve its visitors, nearly as well without their help," said Volunteer Program Manager Kevin Bacher (that's me).

All indisputably true. But there is value to volunteering beyond just getting the work done. Volunteers have extraordinary opportunities to participate in their national parks, to contribute personally to their protection. For many people this experience transcends anything they can get from simply snapping pictures at a viewpoint or even attending a guided walk or campfire program. I have volunteers all the time who come up to me, after six hours of hard work on a trail project, and thank me profusely for the experience. "This park has given me so much," one told me last year. "I volunteer to give back. But every time I volunteer, the more Rainier gives me. I'll never catch up."

Furthermore, volunteers often go home with a renewed sense of stewardship for the parks that expresses itself in other ways as well, from political advocacy and writing letters to the editor, to contributing financially to flood recovery efforts and park partners, to simply spreading the good word about national parks and their need for protection.

This may be especially true for young people, such as those who participate in volunteer internships through the Student Conservation Association. At the end of May, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne issued a report called "The Future of America’s National Parks," which details plans to reconnect young people to the outdoors through volunteerism. "Keeping the 'public' in public lands strengthens our parks as well as our people," said SCA President Dale Penny. "We salute Secretary Kempthorne and Park Service Director Mary Bomar for proffering a vision that engages our youth ... across our many cultures, and there is no better place to plant the seeds of stewardship than our national parks."

And so, consider this: we could not protect Mount Rainier's resources, nor serve its visitors, nearly as well without our volunteer program, either.

A vigorous volunteer program serves a vital purpose even in a park that has every paid employee it could ever dream of. Because of this, some parks, like Golden Gate National Recreation Area, have begun to recognize that providing volunteer opportunities is an important priority in its own right. At a training session I attended in February, Golden Gate Superintendent Brian O'Neill told us, "if our employees are doing all the work, it’s a lost opportunity for community engagement." That approach turns the typical way of thinking about volunteers on its head. Instead of planning whatever they can accomplish with paid staff, and then supplementing or filling in the gaps with volunteers, they ask, "is this a job that can engage public volunteers in the care of their park?" If so, there may be more value in doing the work with volunteers than with employees—even if the job takes longer to complete.

And what happens to the workers who would otherwise have been paid to clean up the beach, build the picnic tables, or repair the trail? Why, they become volunteer crew leaders, of course. Someone still needs to coordinate the work, train the volunteers, and provide leadership grounded in the National Park Service's mission and principles. Many of the front-line positions at Golden Gate are now filled by volunteers... but the employees that filled those positions have been promoted, not replaced.

And so, as the National Park Service's workforce grows in preparation for its centennial celebration in 2016, its volunteer program ought to grow with it. More employees mean more opportunities to cultivate partnerships with individuals and groups in the community. As a Volunteer Program Manager, I've been told repeatedly by supervisors that they'd like to work with more volunteers, but they just don't have the time or personnel to train and supervise them. With more staff, the exciting things we can do with the help of volunteers are limited only by the extent of our imagination. That's why the 500 additional full-time employees and 3,000 seasonal workers projected in next year's budget include dozens of positions dedicated to managing volunteers.

Numbers of volunteers and numbers of paid employees don't have to cancel each other out, with one shrinking as the other grows. In a healthy National Park Service, each is essential to the other.

Time Shares

A conventional timeline suggests that time moves relentlessly forward. A pocketwatch shows that time moves in perpetual circles. All I can say is that time...

Read more by Kevin Hamilton on the Student Conservation Association's Blog!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Playin' Hooky

Most trails take you through parks or forests. This one took us through time. I'm at Mount Rainier National Park with some SCA crew leaders and local volunteers...

Read more by Kevin Hamilton on the Student Conservation Association's Blog!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Field Notes

SCA Flood Recovery Corps members Chas Robles and Hannah O'Connell confer with a Park Service ranger during the Eagle Peak Search and Rescue operation.

Mount Rainier's summer volunteer program is now up and running smoothly. We've accomplished many projects, and have many more coming up on our calendar of activities, which is posted on the SCA website. This weekend we'll be working on trail projects, and campground maintenance, and training meadow rovers at both Paradise and Sunrise. We're also gearing up for some exciting family projects in the beginning of July, and our first 5-day backcountry projects as well. Personally, that sounds like a lot more fun, to me, than working in my own office, answering phone calls and e-mails. What a blog entry that would be! If anyone is interested in writing such an entry, based on your own experience working for our trail crew in the backcountry, please give me a call or send me an e-mail. I'd love to feature a "field correspondent!"

I'm writing this particular entry, though, for a much more serious purpose: to express my heartfelt thanks to the Student Conservation Association's Flood Recovery Corps, who are helping us out this summer by coordinating and leading all these wonderful volunteer projects. As many of you know from watching the local news, we had a major search-and-rescue operation in our park on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, looking for a hiker who went missing on Eagle Peak during a dayhike on Saturday. The Flood Recovery Corps freed up nine of its members to help with the search on Monday, and another six on Tuesday, despite the many other projects they're immersed in already.

It may seem like a minor thing, or even a distraction from the primary goal of our flood recovery program. But in the National Park Service, we take these emergencies very seriously--at least as seriously as we took the flood itself last winter. Every lost hiker has a wife, a son, a mother, a sister for whom this is a earth-moving event. We respond just as a fire department or police department would--we drop everything and focus all our energy on bringing the lost soul home to his family.

This incident, unfortunately, ended tragically with the discovery of the hiker's body at the base of a cliff on Tuesday afternoon. It's heartbreaking when a search ends that way. But over the course of the search, all of its participants conducted themselves with true heroism. (I, myself, served as the park's public information officer; I got to have my face on the TV news, but truly feel that I had the easy job compared to those who were out climbing through the forest.)

I am as proud as I can possibly be to work with these National Park Service heroes, and to count the Student Conservation Association's Flood Recovery Corps among them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Rebuilding Rainier vol. 2.1

Announcing... our first issue of Volume 2 of our Flood Recovery newsletter, Rebuilding Rainier! This newsletter, formerly focused on flood recovery efforts in general, will now feature articles about the contributions of volunteers. The newsletter will be published roughly twice a month and will be chock full of stories and pictures of volunteers in action, as well as information about how you can get involved.

Hey, folks, we couldn't do this without your help. Thank you.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

National Trails Day, HUGE SUCCESS!

Last Saturday was National Trails Day. Nearly 300 people volunteered to repair trails, bridges and other facilities throughout Washington's National Parks and Forests damaged during last fall's storms...

Read more on the Northwest Storm Recovery Coalition Blog!

Sunday, June 3, 2007

New Photos

I've posted several photos from National Trails Day on our photos page (high resolution, suitable for publication), in the Flood Recovery Volunteers folder. Check 'em out!

Saturday, June 2, 2007

National Trails Day

We had volunteers all over the park today for National Trails Day. I spent the afternoon checking out two different projects near Longmire. I am continually stunned by the extent of the damage caused by last November’s floods—on the Wonderland Trail sections we were working on today, a full 2,000 meters of trail was affected, with trees down, chunks of trail missing, and long stretches ruined by water erosion.

I am also continually amazed at the energy of our volunteers, and their willingness to jump in, learn new skills (tread repair, using a crosscut saw), and get the job done. In one spot, in the space of three hours, half a dozen volunteers (out of a larger group four times that size) transformed a rough cut through the forest into something strongly resembling a National Park Service quality trail. In addition, the remains of the old trail were covered with brush, and many of the forest plants growing in the new trail corridor had been carefully transplanted. The finish project looks amazing.
Our SCA-led Flood Recovery Corps had three projects going today, while our partners with the Washington Trails Association led others. Meanwhile, Carl Fabiani, Mount Rainier’s trails foreman, was in Stevens Canyon, evaluating the options for another section of the Wonderland Trail that needs to be rebuilt, either with a long reroute or a shorter but more difficult reconstruction along a steep hillside. The amount of work that remains to be done parkwide is sobering. But the energy that I see on the trail, brought by our volunteers, gives me a lot of hope that we’ll make good progress this summer.

Speaking of which, there are several new positions posted on our long-term volunteer opportunities page, from managing cultural landscapes to developing computer databases. I’ll be posting a few more shortly, including ongoing opportunities to help with soundscape monitoring and breeding toad surveys. Exciting stuff. We’re looking for people who want to help out a day or two per week, or a few times per month. If you know of such individuals, spread the word and send them our way!

Whatever you’re able to contribute, from one day per summer to one day per week, we’re grateful for your help. If you hike the Wonderland Trail from Longmire to Carter Falls any time soon, you’ll be grateful, too.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Beyond the Storm

Last night the NW Storm Recovery Coalition hosted a town hall meeting to update the public on the current state of recovery efforts at Washington's National Parks. Roughly 70 people turned out on a beautiful Seattle night to hear recovery reports from the Superintendents of Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades National Parks....

Read more on the Northwest Storm Recovery Coalition Blog!