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Volunteers Are Integral To The National Park System, But Can There Be Too Many?


Citizen science programs are proliferating around the National Park System, one way that volunteers are coming to the aid of the National Park Service. But are volunteers reducing full-time Park Service jobs?/NPS

In today's budget climate, and with the grassroots support of the national parks, volunteers have become integral in the National Park System. But can there be too many?

That might sound like an odd question, but when volunteers are being sought to lead tours of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, when they clear trails, lead interpretive programs, and even build museum exhibits, should we wonder if the National Park Service workforce slowly but steadily is being supplanted?

And what about students hoping for a National Park Service career as naturalists, interpreters, or craftsmen? Will there be jobs for them, or will volunteers be filling them?

And if volunteers are doing jobs that might otherwise be done by Park Service employees, what happens when the volunteers leave? Case in point: At Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in Pennsylvania, there's concern over who will tend to the sheep there once Becky and Adam Hughes "retire" from their volunteer positions.

"I hate to think what would happen (without the Hugheses)," Edie Shean-Hammond, a retired park superintendent who is a board member of the volunteer group Friends of Hopewell Furnace, told the Reading Eagle. "We don't have anybody who can do that."

At one time, the 848-acre park created in 1938 employed 35 people, including a full-time farmer who cared for sheep, horses, cows, pigs and other animals. That was in the 1970s, arguably the heyday of national parks in the United States, when Hopewell drew an average 160,000 visitors a year. Now, there are five employees, and visits are about a third of what they were three decades ago. But they've been increasing since 2011; last year, the park drew 54,167.

Now, with the Trump administration looking to reduce the size of the federal workforce, questions about the roles of volunteers and of NPS employees grow more important.

According to the National Park Service, last year there were 240,000 VIPs, or Volunteers-In-Parks, greeting visitors, building trails, leading programs, performing research, or doing just about any task imaginable. That number of volunteers is equivalent to "more than 3,200 additional employees," the agency noted in a transition document to the Trump administration.

Under that transition document, the Park Service has a goal of utilizing 1 million volunteers by 2020.

“We are extremely grateful for the dedication and impact of every volunteer,” acting National Park Service Director Michael T. Reynolds said last month during National Park Week. “Each volunteer performs different tasks but shares the same goal – to make a difference every day. Whether a volunteer builds a bridge on a trail or a bridge to the future during a children’s program, each selflessly gives of his or her time and talent to enrich the national park experience for others.”

The National Park Service recognizes the important contributions of all of its volunteers with its annual George and Helen Hartzog Awards for Outstanding Volunteer Service. The recipients will receive their awards during a joint National Park Service/National Park Foundation ceremony in Washington, DC on August 1.

The Hartzog Awards are named for former National Park Service Director George B. Hartzog, Jr. and his wife Helen. Hartzog served as the head of the National Park Service from 1964 to 1972. In 1970, he established the Volunteers-In-Parks Program with 300 volunteers. Since then, more than 4.5 million people have donated more than 1.5 billion hours of service in national parks.

Anyone who is interested in becoming a National Park Service volunteer is encouraged to visit or contact any site directly for more information. Any volunteer who contributes 101 hours of service in this 101st year of the National Park Service will earn a special certificate of appreciation.

Following are the recipients of the 2016 Hartzog Awards:

John L. Goar from Olympic National Park in Washington is the recipient of the Hartzog Award for Outstanding Individual Volunteer Service. Through hundreds of astronomy programs and full moon hikes, Goar has introduced more than 7,000 people to the importance of the night sky. Since 2010, he has devoted1,500 hours to showing visitors the park after dark. In addition, Goar served 3,000 hours as a campground host. He went above and beyond the normal duties of welcoming guests and overseeing the campground by also sorting and recycling thousands of pounds of glass, plastics, paper, and cardboard and removing invasive plants.

Aiden Schafer from Steamtown National Historic Site in Pennsylvania is the recipient of the Hartzog Award for Outstanding Youth Volunteer Service. Schafer brought railroading to life to park visitors. He developed and led tours and provided hands-on experiences during special events, including a “Railroad Worker” program where people operate a hand-powered pump car. His willingness to tackle any project and do it well makes him a leader in the park’s VIP program, even at his young age. He serves as the assistant coordinator for the park’s robust volunteer program, producing training materials and tracking hours for nearly 240 volunteers.

Mike Trotta from Fire Island National Seashore in New York is the recipient of the Hartzog Award for Outstanding Enduring Volunteer Service. Since becoming a park volunteer in 2003, Trotta has provided time, expertise, and skill to enhance almost every facet of park operations. As a carpenter, he built information desks, exhibit cases, aquarium supports, lifeguard stands, donation boxes, and shelves for park facilities. As a work leader, he guided crews of college and high school students, scouts, and other volunteers on projects including the restoration of a historic boathouse, replacement of split-rail fencing, and clean-up after Hurricane Sandy. As an electrician, he repaired park phone lines, electric fixtures, appliances, security systems, and vehicle equipment. As a maintenance worker, he cleared hiking trails, installed window blinds, and installed fencing to protect endangered nesting birds. As an educator, he explained the significance of the state’s only designated federal wilderness, and created a working model of the historic Beach Apparatus Drill that interprets the park’s maritime history.

Research-in-the-Park from Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is the recipient of the Hartzog Award for Outstanding Youth Volunteer Service Group. In 2016, the Research-in-the-Park volunteers from the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts contributed 1,133 hours of service. Dedicated students worked long hours to complete various research projects. They monitored water quality, evaluated geologic resources, identified algae specimens, photographed insects for the museum collection, served as trail ambassadors, and completed analysis of thermophilic bacteria unique to the hot springs. They amassed thousands of water-quality data points through the weekly collection of temperature, pH, specific conductance, and dissolved oxygen readings at 35 thermal water springs. The collection of this data allowed the park to create a baseline for these water quality parameters that had not previously existed.

The Mobile Skills Crew from the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin is the recipient of the Hartzog Award for Outstanding Volunteer Group Service. About 15 years ago, the Ice Age Trail Alliance developed a specialized Mobile Skills Crew to educate and empower volunteers to build, maintain, and steward the 1,000 mile-long trail. Specially trained work leaders from across the state travel to selected segments of the trail to manage local trail volunteers as they tackle large-scale projects. Last year, 841 volunteers from the Mobile Skills Crew spent 20,837 hours on the trail and helped open four new camping areas, build six bridges spanning 114 feet, craft 11 elevated boardwalks and puncheons totaling 1,323 feet, fashion 20 rock walls stretching 289 feet, shape more than two miles of treadway, create an additional five miles of trail for public use, and significantly improve an additional 21 miles of the trail by clearing trees, repairing structures, building erosion control features, and upgrading signage.

The Every Kid in a Park Volunteer Corps from Everglades National Park in Florida is the recipient of the Hartzog Award for Outstanding Park Volunteer Program. In 2016, Everglades National Park doubled the number of fourth-grade students visiting the park for educational programs by developing a new 25-member volunteer corp. The volunteers worked with the park’s education team to engage students at interactive stations focusing on key Everglades topics and outdoor exploration. In previous years, the park could accommodate 150 classes for education programs with another 150 wait-listed. In 2016, with the addition of the volunteer corps, the park offered 132 programs to 325 classes, reaching 6,807 students and 802 teachers and chaperones, a 110 percent increase over the previous year’s total of 3,241 students.


A few weeks ago I went on a long trip that took me to Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso, Texas.  Then on to Big Bend National Park and from there to Fort Davis National Historic Site.  In all those places, I saw only ONE park service uniform.  Every other person I saw or spoke to in visitor centers and elsewhere were volunteers.

Mechanical problems cut my Big Bend visit to less than a day, and that's where I met the only ranger.  He pointed me to the campground host's trailer where he said I could obtain help and find a landline telephone to call for a tow truck.

Perhaps the problem isn't that we have too many volunteers.  Looks to me as if it's far too few rangers and interpreters.   

Although almost all the volunteers I've met through the years have done an absolutely excellent job of interpretation, I can't help but also note that their depth of knowledge is often somewhat lacking.  It's certainly difficult to learn those little details that make the difference between a superficial knowledge of a place and real expertise.  There have been many times when I've heard a volunteer answer a question with an apology instead of deeper information.  Many volunteers speak of the number of places they've served.  Some seem to be collecting experiences while still trying to provide sincerely valuable services to park visitors (and usually succeeding).

This is just one more symptom of the Walmartization of the NPS --- and virtually every other government agency as our Congress and, I'm afraid, administrations both R and D scramble to meet demands of various self serving political organizations that are doing their best to destroy the America I grew up in.

All I can hope is that more Americans will soon begin to notice and be moved to stand up and start shouting. Perhaps Drumpf is actually doing a service for us by suddenly causing so much chaos that more and more good people are beginning to take an interest in what's happening.  If enough do, there might be a chance of starting to really drain the swampy cesspools that have flooded our legislative chambers at both state and federal levels. 


The uniforms are in an office somewhere.

Well, some jobs the people paid the most just don't want to do. Then there are also interns. For a while some volunteers were paid, but no longer. The parks hire the volunteers, and long before the current budget cuts. There is a huge disparity in incomes between, permanent and seasonals.Volunteers are sincere and hardworking.

Superintendents make 6 figure incomes and most permanent employees make good incomes. Seasonal employees are probably the ones you actually see, they make about $15 an hour for less than 6 months a year. Then interns earn a stipend and often housing, then volunteers.

This is a very significant issue which deserves wider discussion.

My wife and I visited Capitol Reef NP last month and learned that the park had only three permanent staff on duty. Seasonals were due to arrive this month, but here in Utah our parks get heavy use in spring and fall. Already the campground was filling every night, and lots of folks were out on the trails. The scene in the visitor center was nothing short of crazy.They have some superb volunteers there, including a couple who have written guidebooks to the area, but there's only so much they can do.

Field patrols, science and interpretation programs need better funding, but as Lee says, the agency is being dragged in the opposite direction.

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