Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Out and about in San Francisco

If you've tried contacting me at my office this past week, you've gotten a message saying that I'm out of town. Actually, while everyone back home has been suffering through unseasonably cold, snowy weather, I've been in sunny San Francisco. (Who'd have thought San Francisco would be so sunny?)

I came down to attend Advanced Volunteer Program training Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this week, and flew in a few days early to "shadow" Golden Gate's legendary volunteer program. On Friday I went out to Alcatraz Island with volunteers who, along with the Garden Conservancy, are restoring the landscaped areas of the island. These are dedicated recurring volunteers, many of whom who come out several times a month to contribute to the ongoing work, much as our own greenhouse and meadow rover volunteers do. Other volunteers serve as docents, give visitor orientations, and lead tours of the island. An NPS ranger officially oversaw the volunteer operations, but the actual coordination of activities was done by a Conservancy employee.
On Saturday, I joined the "Area A Restoration Program," a drop-in program that, on that particular day, was working at removing invasive oxalis from the Whary Dunes area of the Presidio. I worked alongside about 30 other volunteers, some of whom come out regularly as their schedules permit, others, like myself, who had never volunteered before. We were led by employees of the Presidio Trust and the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy.

On Sunday, with a helpful carpool from a volunteer named Roland, I traveled up to the Stinson Beach area of the Marin Headlands to pull Scotch broom and plant native grasses in an old horse pasture, as part of a Restoration Stewards program led by the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy. We were a combination of regular volunteers, who immediately headed off into the brush to work independently as soon as they arrived, and a group from Chico College's "CAVE" program (Community Action, Volunteerism, and Education), also called "Eco Chico." Like me, they were new to this work, so we took a little more guidance and training, but soon we were all happily pulling weeds, avoiding poison oak, sharing stories, and getting muddy.
The most interesting part of the experience, besides the satisfaction of getting some good work done, was the noticeable lack of NPS presence. Rangers showed up here and there to support the volunteer operations, and one directly led our orientation and training on Sunday, but for the most part, the projects were led by partners: the Garden Conservancy, the Presidio Trust, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. In many cases interns or volunteers themselves had major roles in running or coordinating the programs. Despite this apparent lack of direct oversight, everything ran smoothly, and everyone involved was obviously passionate about the work they were doing to protect and restore national park habitats. Clearly, this is the result of a lot of partnership-building, and a lot of trust that has been established between the NPS and its partners. It's interesting to think of how such an organizational structure would be shaped at Mount Rainier. We don't currently have a park partner as intimately intertwined with our operations as the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. However, we do work closely with SCA, and are venturing into hiring SCA interns and/or volunteers to work within our programs to coordinate volunteers.
Another interesting aspect of Golden Gate's volunteer program is that they don't hire "volunteer coordinators" per se in most cases. Instead, they hire people to lead a project: for example, habitat restoration at a particular site. That person's job isn't just to do the work, nor to hire volunteers to do the work, but rather to work in partnership with volunteers to accomplish the project goals. The idea of somehow getting the work done without the help of volunteers isn't even a consideration.
Our classroom training this week has also been productive, though in a very different way. We spent the first day of training hearing from Jon Jarvis, the Regional Director; Joy Pietschmann, the national volunteer program manager; and Jay Watson, the local regional director of SCA. Our group kept them hopping, peppering them all with questions about current policies regarding volunteerism, from budgets and funding to the priorities of the current presidential administration to new homeland security requirements. We hard from several individuals who shared success stories from the innovative programs at their home parks.
Today, we spent the day with Rick Lynch, a consultant who spoke to us about supervision and delegation. Sounds like a dry topic, but Rick made it interesting with his wry humor and stories, and along the way we learned how to encourage those we supervise--including and especially volunteers--to take on higher levels of responsibility.
Tomorrow we will hear from Julia Washburn about collaboration--certainly another topic of direct importance to our program at Mount Rainier!
I'll be back in the office on Tuesday the 17th.

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