Volunteering provides a special experience in national parks

  • Big Bend National Park camp hosts Ed Davis and Mary Lynn and Jim Murrell, who volunteer 32 hours a week in exchange for a free RV hookup and free access to the largest expanse of roadless public lands in Texas.

    Courtesy Big Bend National Park
  • Volunteers clean up tires and every imaginable kind of trash from the banks of the Rio Grande.

    Courtesy Big Bend National Park
  • Volunteers clean up items like discarded fishing tackle from the water itself.

    Courtesy Big Bend National Park
  • Henry Ring (above left) with roommate Alex Brachman on duty at Big Bend National Park.

    Courtesy Big Bend National Park
  • Big Bend National Park, where about 260 volunteers log about 50,000 hours annually.

    QT Luong

Note: This story is part of a special HCN magazine issue devoted to travel in the West.

Big Bend National Park, Texas

The Rio Grande is slow and muddy along the Mexican border, at the base of Santa Elena Canyon, on a sunny November day. My roommate, Alex Brachman –– like me, a fresh-out-of-college intern volunteering in Big Bend National Park –– skips stones from bank to bank. The truck backs up, and we start unloading dull-green National Park Service canoes. There are 14 of us on the river cleanup today, including a mother and son from the tiny town of Terlingua, Texas, and nine retirees. Nearly all of us work for Big Bend National Park one way or another. We just don't pull a park paycheck.

Seasonal volunteers here typically sign up for three-month stints. Many of the retirees come in RVs, and for their required 32 hours of volunteering a week, they're rewarded with free hookups in this wild, remote sprawl of west Texas. It can be a powerful experience, and it's pursued by a surprising number of people: In 2012 alone, the Park Service as a whole attracted 253,000 volunteers who donated 6.7 million hours, with about 50,000 hours going to Big Bend. Volunteer Steve Blythe, a retired comptroller from Louisiana who's doing maintenance work here, says, "I would feel very bored and not very good about myself if I just played for the rest of my life."

Riley Caton, a retired municipal fire chief from Washington, is even blunter: "Retiring and waiting to die is not on our agenda." He and his wife, Karen, a former FEMA disaster assistance employee, volunteer as evaluators for the park's Structural Fire Crew. Today, they're paddling the sweep canoe.

About half of all Park Service volunteers are retirees, and in Big Bend the percentage is even higher. The rest tend to be a mix of short-term volunteers in for just a few days and young interns like Brachman and me. During our three-month stints here, we're volunteering a full 40 hours a week, through a group called the Student Conservation Association. It's not financially rewarding, but we love it.

Our guides on the river cleanup are a retired couple from Michigan who volunteer for the park's law enforcement program. On river patrol (their regular assignment), Elaine and John Jonker have logged more hours on the Rio Grande than many of their paid coworkers. This is relatively common; career Park Service employees are encouraged to switch parks as they rise through different pay grades, but volunteers are usually selected for the same park year after year.

The hours vary from park to park, and becoming a volunteer isn't that easy. Even though Big Bend has about 260 volunteers annually -- more than twice the number of paid employees -- only 120 are lengthy, seasonal positions. And Big Bend has an average return rate of about 80 percent for these positions, so it can be difficult for newbies to get a spot. Experience volunteering in other parks, wildlife refuges, or national seashores or forests can help you get a foot in the door, but luck and timing also play a role. Sometimes family emergencies or health problems suddenly open up positions that have been occupied for years.

Unpaid labor's not for everyone, of course, and some volunteers have to work elsewhere part of the year to get by. Lew McCool, a volunteer park interpreter here, works seasonally collecting fees at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Steve Blythe in maintenance sold his antiques and even his house to fund his volunteering. The Catons also just closed on their house sale, becoming full-time RVers. They joke, "We tell people we're not homeless now, just houseless."

If you're a college student or a recent graduate, the Student Conservation Association offers interns some support (a food stipend, housing, reimbursement of some travel costs) in a wide-ranging program that assists many parks and other federal conservation areas. On occasion, the SCA also partners with Americorps to provide money toward student loans. And the non-monetary perks are incredible. During my two-week orientation and training in Big Bend, I paddled a different stretch of the river on an overnight trip that featured beer, tacos and guacamole, made at the campsite with fresh avocados. As my internship proceeds, I hike with the park geologist, botanist and archaeologist, down-climb out-of-the-way canyons with a park interpreter, and monitor backcountry wells with a physical science technician. On a flight in the park's Cessna with a law enforcement officer, I help spot some people illegally crossing the Rio Grande, headed north lugging big plastic bags that likely contain marijuana or other contraband.

High Country News Classifieds