Friday, May 10, 2013

Impacts of Sequestration on Mount Rainier's Volunteer Program

Mount Rainier National Park issued a press release yesterday detailing the effects of sequestration on park programs, staff, and services. With a 5% cut in this year's budget on top of $500,000 worth of additional cuts over the past few years, hard choices have to be made, and some things that we have been able to do in previous years are no longer possible.

Our priorities are public safety and access. As we meet these priorities with leaner resources, the volunteer program will play a critical role. Of course, volunteers are already a tremendous asset to our park. Last year 1,804 volunteers contributed 74,615 hours of volunteer time. A non-partisant research organization called Independent Sector publishes an annual estimate of the financial value of volunteer service, based on what it would cost to hire paid labor (with salary and benefits) to do comparable work. At this year's rate of $22.14 per hour, Mount Rainier's volunteers contribute $1.65 million worth of productivity. Looked at another way, a typical 3-month summer seasonal employee works for about 500 hours, so our volunteers are the equivalent of hiring 149 additional seasonal workers. Obviously, even without sequestration, we could never hope to accomplish as much, nor serve our public as well, without their help.

And our numbers keep growing. I've worked here for more than ten years now, and our volunteer numbers have been larger every year except 2008, and that was only because of the immense surge of volunteers who responded to winter storm damage during the previous summer. Volunteer hours are up almost 80% over the last decade, and volunteers are being used in creative ways to help with citizen science, backcountry maintenance, and almost every other part of park operations.

I've been asked many times over the past few months how sequestration will affect Mount Rainier's volunteer program. Here are three examples:
  1. Closed facilities mean fewer volunteers. The Ohanapecosh Visitor Center will not open this summer. The Cougar Rock Campground will have a shorter season. In both cases, volunteer jobs have been suspended or reduced along with those of paid employees. There will be no volunteer interpreters or Junior Ranger program assistants at Ohanapecosh, and Cougar Rock's campground hosts will come on duty later in the year.
  2. Supervisory capacity is reduced. One of the most significant barriers to volunteer program growth has always been "span of supervision." Volunteers, just like paid employees, must be trained, mentored, supervised, and provided with the supplies and equipment they need to do their jobs safely and effectively. Thus, there is a limit to the number of volunteers a supervisor can work with. Under sequestration, many vacant positions at Mount Rainier have gone unfilled, leaving remaining staff with more work to accomplish with fewer people, and in many cases, even less time to work with volunteers. We've found creative ways to overcome this problem over the years--for example, hiring interns through the Student Conservation Association (SCA) specifically to coordinate volunteers in the Citizen Science and Trails programs; and working in partnership with the Washington Trails Association to coordinate volunteer projects. And many supervisors are finding that if they assign their front-line employees to work with volunteers, they can get even more accomplished than they can without their help (and because those volunteers require training and supervision, the front-line employee's own job is in no danger of being "replaced" by them).
  3. Less money is available to support the volunteer program. Contrary to popular believe, volunteers are not "free" (though they provide an exceptional return on investment). There are costs associated with training, supervision, supplies, uniforms, fleet vehicles, housing, and sometimes a small per diem to cover living expenses for long-term volunteers. Volunteer program support comes from four places. My own salary, as the park's Volunteer and Outreach Program Manager, is supported by the park's "base" funding. We receive a small additional budget (usually $15-$18,000 annually) distributed out of a nationwide appropriation for the Park Service's volunteer programs. A significant amount of volunteer support comes from the individual programs in which volunteers work--for example, our Visitor Protection program may pay for a fleet vehicle to support our Emergency Roadside Assistance volunteers, or our division of Interpretation and Education may pay for housing and utilities on behalf of a volunteer working full-time in one of the park's visitor centers. All three of these funding sources are affected by sequestration and other budget cuts. With less money to support volunteers, our capacity to work with them is reduced.

    Fortunately, our fourth funding source, grants and donations, has so far made up a lot of the difference. A Youth Partnerships Program grant, for example, will support three SCA Community Crews made up of high school age youth from Seattle this summer, as well as youth internships in our education and restoration programs. An "America's Best Idea" grant from the National Park Foundation will expand that program further and support hiring almost a dozen youth from Joint Base Lewis-McChord to join the Community Crews. Donations from Washington's National Park Fund (WNPF) and "Keep America Beautiful," a program supported by Glad®, will fund much-needed upgrades to the volunteer campground at Longmire. And through an incredibly generous estate gift from the Raymond and Eleanor Wilson Charitable Trust, we're in the third year of a five-year, $50,000-per-year commitment by WNPF. This year's installment will pay for housing, reimbursements, uniforms, vehicles, and supplies for volunteer interpreters, educators, emergency roadside assistants, campground hosts, citizen scientists, restoration and trail crews, geologists, wilderness patrol, nordic patrol, and climbing rangers. We are incredibly grateful for the generosity of those who support these programs through their donations.
As with every park program, the volunteer program addresses the effects of sequestration by being as creative and efficient as we can with the resources we're given. We are glad to be a means for members of the public to work in partnership for the preservation of their national parks. This year, that support is more vital than ever.

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