Voluntary excess

As budgets shrink, national parks increasingly rely on volunteers instead of paid staff

 

It’s a Monday morning at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, and a maintenance crew named the “Road Hogs” is hard at work, as they’ve been every Monday since 1999. They wear baseball caps and blazing orange shirts. This April morning, they’re filling dump trucks with beetle-killed trees. “If we got paid to do this, we wouldn’t want to do it,” says Larry Schluntz, a retired economist with the Bureau of Reclamation.

Nearly 155,000 volunteers work in the National Park Service. Without them, a lot of the work simply would not get done. In 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that the budget for daily operations within the Park Service has not kept pace with rising costs since 2001, and as a result, the number of paid staff positions has steadily dwindled. Increasingly, the Park Service relies on volunteers to fill shoes that historically belonged to employees. “It’s kind of a fine line,” says Joy Pietschmann, an agency-wide volunteer coordinator. “In a lot of cases, if there are sites that don’t have the funds to hire or fill one of their full-time employees or paid positions, then volunteers are often brought in to get those jobs and that work accomplished.”

But the trend has its downside. With sometimes less-highly skilled volunteers providing more services, visitors may find the traditional park experience diminished. And some critics, including Park Service employees, fear that increasing reliance on private volunteers makes it easier to cut funding for parks.

 

Volunteers have played an integral role in the National Park Service since the volunteer program’s inception in 1970. But never before has the NPS relied so much on them for its day-to-day operations. From 1973 to 2006, the parks’ volunteer force grew nearly nineteenfold, to 154,500. In comparison, the number of full-time staff in the same time period grew only threefold, to about 20,000. By 2012, the Park Service plans to expand its volunteer program to 200,000 volunteers.

Even with a rapidly growing volunteer force, critical needs are going unmet. The Park Service has an annual budget shortfall of more than $800 million, according to an estimate from the National Parks Conservation Association. Many parks struggle with a chronic inability to protect natural resources and provide visitor services. In Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, staff shortages prevent sufficient monitoring of peregrine falcons and desert bighorn sheep. Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park reduced its interpretive programs by a third between 2001 and 2005, while Mount Rainier National Park in Washington has recently cut its seasonal interpretive employees by half. “It’s very clear that many parks have lost capacity,” says Ron Tipton, senior vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association. "They’re scrambling like crazy to get anybody in a uniform that can serve the public."

Volunteers play an ever-increasing role in interpretation and education within the Park Service, leading hikes, staffing visitor centers and running campfire programs. Some volunteers return year after year and possess a depth of knowledge and expertise comparable to that of a professional ranger. But critics fear a decline in the overall quality of educational services when volunteers take the place of experienced, paid employees. “Everglades National Park is one of those parks where interpretation and education is the backbone of the whole purpose of being there,” says Bill Wade, with the Tucson-based Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. “It’s very important for people to learn more than that it’s just a swamp.”

Officials at some parks say that they will make the difficult choice to cut back on services rather than fill certain positions with volunteers. At Yellowstone National Park, managers use volunteers to interact with visitors during special events such as the elk rut, but not for interpretive walks or evening programs. Interpretation, says Brian Suderman, Yellowstone’s North District interpretive ranger, “is much more than just having a warm body being able to stand up and talk to visitors. We feel it’s a professional occupation with high standards that we try to uphold.”

As volunteer numbers grow, agency critics and employees also fear that the dependence on private individuals and organizations makes it easier to justify under-funding the parks. In a recent assessment conducted by the Park Service, 30 percent of NPS volunteer-program supervisors said they believe that increasing numbers of volunteers threaten paid positions. One manager responded to the survey by commenting, “It seems to me, unfortunately, that the NPS is coming to the point where we depend upon (volunteers) instead of interpretive park rangers.” But the surge in volunteerism is a trend that’s not limited to federal agencies. “Just about every part of our society that uses volunteers is looking to use them more,” says Judy Chetwin, intermountain regional volunteer coordinator.

 

A potential bright spot on the horizon is the proposed budget for fiscal year 2008. If Congress appropriates funding, the Park Service will get a budget of $2.4 billion, which would allow the hiring of 500 full-time employees and 3,000 seasonal positions. Officials say they are confident that the increased support will continue at least until the agency’s centennial celebration in 2016.

Regardless of budget forecasts, the Park Service is likely to continue to rely on its volunteers. “As park managers, it becomes a philosophical question,” says Scott Gediman, a ranger at California’s Yosemite National Park. “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?”

As for the volunteers, they all recite a litany of reasons why they offer up their free time to the parks: the camaraderie of their peers, giving something back to their communities, staying in shape. Ron Meskimen of the Road Hogs jokingly calls it his “cheap health club.” Bouncing along in a pickup truck, he declares, “This is the most beautiful office I ever worked in.”



The author is a freelance writer in Denver, Colorado.