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How Many Volunteers Does It Take to Run A Park?


    How many businesses in America invite the public in to help run the show? It's a question I ask because the president would have the National Park Service increase the number of hours that volunteers contribute to the park system by 20 percent by Fiscal 2011.    
    During FY '06, the 154,000 folks who contributed 5.1 million hours to the agency's Volunteers in the Parks program in effect replaced 2,451 full-time employees, according to the president's FY '08 budget proposal for the Park Service.
    With the requested increase, the program is likely to gain 11,000 well-trained volunteers and an increase of 1,000,000 hours by FY 2011, the budget narrative reads.
    How many more rangers will be left without jobs courtesy of this initiative?
    Now, this is not to question the value of the VIP program, nor to insinuate that the Park Service shouldn't embrace volunteers. Indeed, I'm told that permanent Park Service employees welcome volunteers ... though they'd prefer there was money to hire them.
    But it would seem to raise two questions: Is the VIP program adding a margin of excellence in the parks? Or, rather, is it being wielded to slowly replace the ranks of full-time rangers?

    After all, the Bush administration's love of outsourcing has been well-documented. Earlier this month the New York Times published the latest in a long series of stories examining the administration's reliance on outsourcing government jobs.
    On the rise for decades, spending on federal contracts has soared during the Bush administration, to about $400 billion last year from $207 billion in 2000, fueled by the war in Iraq, domestic security and Hurricane Katrina, but also by a philosophy that encourages outsourcing almost everything government does,
the story began.
    And here's how the February on-line edition of Reason, a monthly mag that endorses "free minds and free markets," recently analyzed the administration's penchant for outsourcing:
    In spite of congressional resistance, Bush’s political appointees, especially in the transportation, interior, and defense departments, marched ahead with competitive sourcing, saving more than $3 billion and outsourcing about 41,000 federal jobs, almost enough to offset the fiasco of federalizing the once-private airport security workers. Unlike the Clinton-era outsourcing of federal workers, the Bush administration’s efforts were felt across the federal government, not just in the military. (My emphasis)
    If you want more specific background, Google "outsourcing the Park Service" and you'll get more than 1.3 million hits in less than a second.
    The zenith of concern over outsourcing Park Service jobs seemed to hit back in 2003. During that hot summer then-NPS Director Fran Mainella was summoned to the Capitol to defend plans to outsource some 1,700 Park Service jobs. So hot was the heat that Fran wrote an op-ed explaining her agency's consideration of outsourcing some jobs.
    Is the administration now eying the VIP program as a lower-profile approach to get back to that task, one that would save even more money because, heck, volunteers volunteer?
    Here's some more narrative from the FY '08 budget proposal:
    A $2.4 million increase to park base (funding) for full-time and part-time volunteer coordinators will support the increased reliance on and expansion of the VIP program. (
Again, my emphasis.)
    On top of that, the budget calls for a legislative change to raise the existing "funding ceiling for the VIP program."
    So let's take another look at the president's proposed Park Service budget: On one hand, it calls for the private sector to invest $1 billion in the park system by 2016. On the other, it would have more and more volunteers take on jobs previously performed by rangers.
     Does anyone else harbor any concerns with these provisions?


An early page in the privatization book. That's how I look at this. I have no problem with volunteers helping. But when I hear that the Pentagon has mislaid $12B, I have to wonder just what in the heck is going on. Each of the parks should be funded to the level its superintendent believes is prudent, given maintenance, staffing, visitation and infrastructure needs. If it isn't, then Congress should insure that it is. Sure, you bet, volunteers have a role. But saying let's turn more of the general workload over to them, no that's wrong.

I'm concerned that the standards for interpretive park rangers and interpretive volunteers are wildly disparate. For instance, a GS-5 park ranger generally either a year of GS-4 experience or a four-year degree in one of many fields: history, anthropology, biology, etc. However, there is no such requirement, that I'm aware of, for volunteers. Volunteers tend to be retired and older and are sometimes not as physically able to lead hikes and spend long shifts standing at high-volume visitor center information desks. I've worked with many wonderful volunteers, and they're a great SUPPLEMENT to staffing, but they are not a REPLACEMENT for well-trained, highly experienced, and PROFESSIONAL interpreters. Additionally, visitors expect and should be able to interact with rangers, complete with gold badge and flat hat.

I agree that volunteers tend to be less knowledgeable than rangers. My last visit to Happy Isle Nature Center in Yosemite is an illustration. I asked what I considered to be a few simple questions about bears such as "how long do the cubs stay with the mother?" and the volunteer at the information desk had no idea. The volunteers should have to pass some sort of test on the area they are serving to make sure they can fulfill the duties.

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