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.

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