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Reader Participation Day: How Much Should The National Park Service Rely On Volunteers?


How much should the National Park Service rely on volunteers? That's a difficult question, as there are teachers, retirees, and others with valuable knowledge and skills that the parks could benefit from, particularly as the agency struggles to make ends meet.

But does Apple, or JP Morgan, or any Fortune 500 company rely as much on volunteers for day-to-day operations as does the Park Service?

It's estimated that the National Park System functions, in part, thanks to  221,000 volunteers, or roughly 10 times the active Park Service staff. And the Park Service is on a campaign to "(C)ontinually advocate for volunteerism which includes volunteers, volunteer managers, and volunteer program/strategy."

More so, the agency has a directive to "(A)dvocate that volunteerism is a core value of the National Park Service,  and should be aligned with NPS mission statement, goals, and objectives." That campaign also involves removing barriers that "limit the number of volunteers in parks..."

Is that mission bringing the skills and talents to the agency that it needs? Is it denying jobs to college graduates who look to a career in the parks?

Bottom line: How much should volunteerism be looked to to keep the National Park System running?



No, the NPS should not come to the point where it has to rely on volunteers to keep operating.

Volunteers can, and do, provide some wonderful service to the parks and visitors but they should never replace professional employees.  (I don't think that is permitted by law -- but that doesn't mean it's not happening.)

Training and supervision of volunteers can become a serious drain on park personnel and budgets if it's allowed to get out of hand.  Any use of volunteers should be examined with an eye toward costs and benefits.

Volunteerismt works well. For proof, see the value Acadia NP derives from Friends of Acadia and its supportive corps of volunteers.

The library system I used to work for had a good policy, I think.  Volunteers should be encouraged and given interesting work -- but they should *never* take on any work that has traditionally  been done by paid staff.

I have worked in three parks, two of which relied very heavily on volunteers. I believe there are both benefits and drawbacks, but (in my opinion) one central truth:

Because so many people love the parks, certain folks in leadership positions in our government see those volunteer numbers/hours and decide that the NPS budget is fine. Why would we need to hire paid employees when we can get so many people to work for free?

Just like the Smokey Bear campaign was powerful - but at what cost to forest health and succession? The volunteer program is amazing and does great things, but at what cost?

It makes me very happy that people love our parks and want to help out. We often need the help. But I just wonder what effect these numbers will have on long-term budgets and program functions.


Volunteers serve different roles in different kinds of parks. Parks need to decide the proper ratio of staff to volunteers. There are some park units (the Appalachian Trail for instance) where volunteers and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Staff essentially perform usual National Park Functions. Yet there are other places where volunteers are just assistants next to Rangers at information centers. There are also places (Washington, DC) where commercial operations have almost replaced rangers providing interpretation. One size doesn't fit all. When all is said and done, though, all of us who love the National Parks need to stand firm that high volunteer participation should never be an excuse to reduce NPS staff. They are too shorthanded as it is.

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