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A View From The Overlook: Volunteers In The Parks. Is That Legal?


Recently, the much-esteemed Ranger Ron Mackie, late of Yosemite and the National Park Service, took time off from his new career of fighting forest fires in “retirement” to send me e-mail on the subject of volunteer labor.

It seems that between fires, Ron had read an interesting, and disturbing book by Ross Perlin entitled Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing And Learn Little In The Brave New Economy.

Briefly, the book is an expose of corporate and government exploitation of unpaid labor derived from dubious “internships” that promise a job at a nebulous future date.

Ranger Ron was curious to know if anyone thought the NPS might be privy to such abuses in its own backyard.

According to Ron, “I saw interns and VIPs working without supervision in visitor centers, campgrounds and wilderness patrol operations, enforcing regulations. In some cases, the intern/VIP’s are working in violation of federal fair labor standards laws and are at risk in enforcing laws they have neither the training nor the authority to do so. In one case a VIP was insisting that a camper store his food properly. She initiated the contact by walking into his campsite unannounced, began searching his food containers to see if he was in violation and then threatened to impound his cooking utensils and food to be used as evidence against him. She was in a very risky situation. I could go on and on.”

Thank you, Ron.

The VIP program (Volunteers in the Parks) has gone from a management curiosity to the status of “We couldn’t run the parks without them!” in a career span of only 30 years.

Indeed, your humble correspondent was present at one of many official inaugurations of the VIP program. You see, back then, the idea of working for nothing was a rather exotic and novel concept. You could and did run national parks without unpaid labor. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, the lowliest Civilian Conservation Corps member in the national parks got $1 a day plus room and board. Nobody worked for nothing.

Nobody? Well, hardly anybody. There is a strong thread of volunteerism in American history. George Washington volunteered to lead the Continental Army for nothing but expenses. John Muir, a well-to-do California fruit rancher, volunteered to lobby for national parks at his own expense.

The independently wealthy Steve Mather, first director of the National Park Service, took a rather casual attitude toward his government salary, frequently making up government shortfalls out of his own pocket. Among his most famous contributions was money for the construction of the “Ranger Club” in Yosemite Valley, a delightful sprawling log “mansion” that has housed generations of bachelor rangers and many interesting stories.

In addition, according to Paul Berkowitz, historian of NPS law enforcement, it seems that Mather armed the nascent ranger force with Colt .45 Model 1917 “New Model” revolvers purchased with his own funds.

However, the “Dollar a year men,” who administered vast government projects for free during the Second World War, were able to do so because they had many dollars of their own.

The rest of us Americans, the middle class and the poor, confined our volunteering to church work, the Red Cross, local disaster relief, or the volunteer fire department. It did not occur to most citizens to extend a helping hand to Uncle Sam.

That Remote And Suspicious Entity

Now why would anyone want to work for nothing for the U.S. government; “That remote and suspicious entity” as Edward Abbey called it?

Well, it depends on the government agency. Certain agencies have a cachet, a certain glamour, a certain élan. The NPS does, other agencies do not.

Consider, for example, our brother federal agency, the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS has a problem getting volunteers. The National Park Service has had splendid success with its Junior Ranger Program, but to the best of my knowledge, the IRS has not been able to launch a similar “Junior IRS Agent” program.

Think of it! If your child is a natural snoop and enjoys investigating his/her playmates and catching them in little white lies, he/she would be a natural for the “Junior IRS Agent” Program!

The IRS has had much better success with its adult volunteer program, a sort of Volunteer in Taxation (VIT). The Volunteer in Taxation assists the IRS by suggesting to IRS agents that certain of their neighbors could stand more intensive scrutiny of their tax returns. Now the IRS, unlike the NPS, does not provide meals and transportation stipends for its volunteers, but it does provide the incentive of a percentage of the tax money recovered by the volunteer’s effort (For rather obvious reasons, IRS volunteers do not wear uniforms or name tags, nor are they celebrated in “Volunteer of the Year” banquets.)

So you see, certain government agencies both lend themselves to volunteerism than others and are able to attract high quality volunteers.

Public Lands Volunteers

Such is the case of the National Park Service, and to a slightly lesser extent, the other federal land management agencies such as the US Forest Service and the Fish & Wildlife Service. Indeed, just about every middle class mother’s son or daughter has toyed with the idea of becoming a “forest” ranger at one time or another.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) wiser heads or Stern Reality intervened, and our proto-ranger went on to a more remunerative, if prosaic career. However, the “green fire” that Aldo Leopold noticed in the eyes of a wolf, did not entirely die out in the souls of these people. They still wanted to be part of the parks.

Hence the Volunteer in the Park program.

Now it seems that when a new concept is to be implemented by the NPS, it is the custom of the Great White Father in Washington to send emissaries into the hinterland to explain things to the Fieldlings.

The concept to be explained was the VIP program and how it was to be implemented, and what forms would be required (of course!). It seems that administration was off limits for VIPs. (Understandably, superintendents, assistant superintendents, administrative officers and so on, objected to being cashiered and replaced by volunteers.)

The park maintenance division was also sternly off-limits to the VIPs. You see, maintenance folks are a pragmatic lot and generally take a somewhat unromantic view of the National Park Service, refusing to be paid in sunsets. At the time, their union chiefs regarded the VIP program as a form of scab labor. (Surprisingly, everything has changed; today’s VIPs not only pick up trash, they build things for the park, operate equipment, and generally act like maintenance. So, if you are a retired plumber or electrician…)

The Protection Ranger Division was (and is) also forbidden to the VIP program. This startles (and angers) some folks who believe that the law-enforcement rangers are discriminating against VIPs who want to pack a pistol and arrest people and are willing to do it for free. Such critics point out that many metropolitan and rural law enforcement jurisdictions have uniformed volunteer reserves that are trained, armed and can arrest or shoot miscreants till the cows come home. So, why not a VIP-commissioned ranger reserve?

The answer is that it would be illegal. As Paul Berkowitz reminds us “16 USC 1a6 (NPS law enforcement authorities) limit delegation of law enforcement authority to “officers and employees.” Elsewhere in16 USC, volunteers are addressed, and they are not identified as either officers or employees, hence precluded from delegation of Law Enforcement authority /duties.”

Thank you, Paul!

Should Volunteers Be Paid?

Now this is not the case for the Interpretive Division of the NPS. From the earliest days of the VIP program, park interpretive programs greeted volunteers with open, if not always imaginative, minds.

Unfortunately, as Roger Siglin, former chief ranger of Yellowstone, points out:

“My biggest complaint is that VIPs are too often given the most boring work that paid staff does not want to do. I am thinking of standing behind a desk and being forced to talk to visitors even if they know nothing about the park. I have often thought the main goal of paid employees is to rise far enough up the ladder to not have to meet visitors.”

Thank you, Roger!

On the other hand, many VIPs have contributed many thousands of hours of constructive information to the public, particularly the cultural demonstrations of pioneer crafts or vanishing historical memory such as the VIP’s at the USS Arizona memorial, who were present at the event, or VIPs who knew Dr. Martin Luther King.

Indeed, some VIPs know more about the park than the paid permanent staff, and the permanent staff often finds this pretty scary. Apparently, this was true in the case of Dr. Owen Hoffman, a noted biologist who had 'seasonaled' at Crater Lake in his youth and later returned as a volunteer astronomer (Crater Lake National Park, being remote, has some of the best “dark sky” in the continental US.)

Professor Hoffman provided his own telescopes for the program, which was, of course, free of charge. The park patrons loved the program and for a while, all went well.

Then one season, Dr. Hoffman was told housing would be unavailable to him, effectively terminating the program. The official reason was “Providing unscheduled Astronomical Interpretation” and “doing unauthorized roving interpretation.” (Remarkable charges, even for the NPS!)

Dr. Hoffman is still puzzled over his dismissal. (Hint: Dr. Hoffman championed his fellow limnologist Dr. Douglas Larson, who blew the whistle at Crater Lake over possible pollution; the NPS famously does not respond well to whistleblowers)

There are, however, rumors of misuse of the VIP program. There is the old conundrum, “I can’t get the job because I don’t have the experience and I can’t get the experience because I don’t have the job.” Your correspondent recalls being told by one chief of interpretation, “Candidates for a GS-4/5 position had to work two successful seasons as an unpaid volunteer BEFORE they would even be considered for the paid position.”

This is probably illegal, basically being the sale of a government job (even with the best of intentions).

Requiring or promoting unpaid labor as a prerequisite to a paid position would also be patently unfair as it would discriminate against candidates whose families were financially unable to support the candidate during the unpaid internship.

Does it happen? Interesting question!

We checked out the index of Intern Nation and found nothing on the national parks or the National Park Service, so either the author was a bit remiss in the depth of his research or there is absolutely nothing wrong with the NPS program.

What do you think?


A lot of food for thought here.

VIPs can, and do play some vital roles in our parks. Once upon a time, they provided supplemental activities, such as the night sky programs. But as budgets have disappeared they've morphed into a quasi-park staff. I've seen many, many outright abuses of VIPs in many places.

A VIP weeding decorative plantings in front of conscession stores at Canyon in Yellowstone. A VIP enforcing campground food regulations at Norris who was suddenly nearly attacked by some campers who were quite obviously a lot too full of the fruit of the barley. (She was in danger. Thankfully, a couple of other campers came to her aid and managed to get her safely out of there. An LE ranger arrived later and the belligerant campers were evicted.)

Then there times I've gone for several days in park (Organ Pipe, for example) without seeing anyone who was not wearing a VIP uniform.

PJ's questions may have no real answers -- but they should.

Most of the article is on VIP's, although interns are mentioned early on.

I think that most of the discussion is germane to VIP's, as what I've seen of interns is a different matter. Interns tend to be undergraduate or graduate students in specific disciplines, who compete for a specific term limited internship within their discipline. Examples are botanists and other physical scientists working on invasive plant projects or migratory fowl tracking, or object conservators working on preserving museum artifacts. They tend to receive a specific stipend and park housing, and are regulated as to hours, supervision, and so forth, often by a cooperative agreement between the interns, the NPS, and outside academic or professional organizations.

I think that such subject matter interns are less likely to the abuse potential mentioned above.

Speaking as a former reference librarian, "I have often thought the main goal of paid employees is to rise far enough up the ladder to not have to meet visitors" makes my blood boil, especially as I ran up against that attitude over and over when I worked in libraries.

Now I work as a freelance museum curator, and if you want to find a workplace that abuses interns, museums are where it's at. I am not at all surprised that the park service is in the same business, since our national parks have so much else in common with museums to begin with.

Lee, it was interesting to note that you have witnessed some of the issues PJ brought up as have I. Great article PJ, the book "Intern Nation" is worth the read, for those that are interested in this issue.

AT Crater Lake NP, The Friends of Crater Lake, one 501 C3 non-profit group, basically controls who is accepted as a volunteer and who is denied; one conflict of interest here is that the current Friends President is a former Chief Ranger. It is widely known that within the NPS, many superintendents and other key division chiefs have little respect for serious scientific educational activities especially if they perceive them to cause controversial discussions, an important corner-stone validating Scientific Methodology. Many of these key NPS personalities enjoy promotions not truly based on merit but rather cronyism, and the opportunity for a Friend to enjoy their last three years prior to retirement at the highest Pay-Grade possible to maximize their retirement benefits. Several of the recent superintendents at Crater Lake and Redwood are not there because they are passionate for Crater Lake's precious clean fresh water or because they are learning about ancient coastal redwood ecology; they are there to enjoy promotional benefits prior to retirement. If Merit were a factor, we would witness outstanding superintendent leadership whose primary job is to hire and promote other leaders who reward employees for serious educational scholarship and successful project implementation. So, one last issue they assign value to is a volunteer scientist teaching park visitors a basic knowledge of the Value of Night Skies and where our Earth is among the galaxies. Selected Interpretive Division Chiefs also may not be passionate about the value of Night Skies nor in promoting respect for learning the latest conclusions from many Natural Resource projects like Whitebark Pines in Peril from exotic Asian blister rust and global warming increasing the populations of native mountain pine beetles killing ancient trees. A former Mt. Rainier superintendent known for his lack of respect for scientists at Glacier NP, denied a USFS planned conference at MORA to discuss the issues of whitebark pines surviving both global warming effects and the exotic Asian blister rust. For some higher graded personalities, it's more rewarding to deny selected volunteers the opportunities to engage the "taxpayers" in relevant discussion affecting the future of our national park resource values. One meaning of Megalomania Disorder is an key individual's mental state denying that others have positive contributions to make in our understanding like in Public Land natural resources issues. For homework: learn the positive contributions made by the new Volunteer Program at Mt. Rainier NP now managed by a former Crater Lake interpreter not appreciated while at CRLA., and study the late Dr. Peter's organizational "Peter Principle", especially the common tendency in promoting people to their highest level of incompetence.

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