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Op-Ed | Volunteers In The National Parks


Should the National Park Service rely even more on volunteers rather than professional rangers?/NPS

Editor's note: There is a long history of volunteerism in the National Park System, and indeed volunteers play invaluable roles. But do they arrive at the cost of permanent rangers and professional interpreters? Bruce and Sara Schundler long have worked as seasonal rangers in the parks, side-by-side with volunteers. This is their take on the matter.

More and more people are visiting our national parks, and some parks are not just busy but getting overwhelmed and overcrowded. Meanwhile, the prospect of more money being budgeted for more staff is unlikely.  Consequently,  many parks should begin considering using volunteers, and those that do….should consider using more volunteers and using volunteers in more meaningful ways.

The overcrowding at some of our more popular parks probably has been caused by several things:  the Ken Burns series woke up many people to the many treasures we have in America, the National Park Service’s centennial year advertising was very successful, millions of “baby boomers” are retiring and beginning to work on their “Bucket Lists,” many Americans increasingly are concerned about foreign travel, and the American economy has improved.

Admittedly, there are many parks that have been using volunteers, and some have used them in creative and meaningful ways for years. When my wife and I worked as seasonal park rangers at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, for instance, there were volunteers who literally did everything we did---they worked alone behind the visitor information desk, led tours and programs, walked in teams on the beaches and as rovers around the lighthouse, and worked at every level of the lighthouse. Some of the best campfire programs we’ve attended have been led by volunteers at places like Canyonlands National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.

On the other hand, we’ve visited parks that simply don’t use volunteers---sometimes because there’s no need and sometimes because a conscious decision has been made not to use them.  And many parks use volunteers in only limited ways.  At Ellis Island, part of Statue of Liberty National Monument, for instance, when my wife and I first began volunteering all we could do was rove, greet visitors, and help at the information desk … if another Park Ranger was present. Meanwhile, they haven’t accepted new volunteers for two years while the training and use of volunteers is evaluated and a new volunteer program is developed.   

When we worked at Mesa Verde National Park, volunteers could answer basic questions before visitors purchased tickets for the various tours and they could sell water at one of the sites, but nothing else. And when we worked at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, volunteers could only pick up litter in the geyser basins and help with traffic jams (caused by bear or bison sightings).

The overcrowding probably won’t stop until more and more Baby Boomers begin traveling in wheelchairs and walkers instead of cars and RVs,  and when PBS stops showing the Ken Burns series on the national parks, and when travel abroad becomes attractive again.  Meanwhile, more funding for the Park Service may happen someday, but probably not in the foreseeable future.

So, what should we do now!

Some would argue we should do nothing.  Just keep doing what we’re doing and eventually either fewer people will come or Congress will appropriate more money. But that’s not a good option. It would mean millions of Americans will not have a good experience visiting our parks, and for many, their one and only chance in a lifetime to see Old Faithful, or drive the Going-To-The-Sun Road, or climb the Statue of Liberty, will be a disappointment. Visitors simply will not have as good of an experience at our parks as we might be able to provide.

There are some things that we cannot do, and some things that we can’t change. But using more volunteers is a fairly easy alternative—and an alternative that could let many visitors have a more positive experience of our parks fairly quickly.

Consequently, I will say again, many parks should begin considering using volunteers, and those that do should consider using more volunteers and using volunteers in more meaningful ways.

In our travels through all 50 states before we were retired, and in 49 states in our RV since we retired, we have visited many parks (county, state, and national parks), and many zoos, botanical gardens, and museums that rely heavily and very successfully on volunteers.  Why can’t more of our national parks consider using them?

With a minimal amount of training, volunteers could work behind information desks and probably answer many question as well as many part-time seasonal rangers. Volunteers could lead tours, run special interpretive programs, watch and rove in unattended parts of parks, and be available to visitors in hundreds of ways. 

When we worked at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty in 2010 and 2011, there often was mass confusion: visitors wondering what to see, what to do, where to go, and volunteers could have helped simply by greeting people when they arrived in the ferries, or in the screening sites, or around the Statue.  Significantly, during the last two years some of those problems have been addressed (in part with help from volunteers.)   When we were at Mesa Verde there were sites like Sun Temple and the Far View sites that were unattended every day.  And at Yellowstone, we easily could have had help from volunteers just walking the boardwalks, or being present at some of the areas often unattended by rangers (e.g. sites like Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, and Midway, for instance).

Quite frankly, my wife and I applied for and became park rangers not because we needed additional income after retiring, but because we wanted to give back to others some of the wonderful experiences we had had in many national parks ... and then we discovered that to do tours, and programs, and to have a meaningful role in interpretive programs, we simply had to become park rangers. Many parks wouldn’t let us do these things as volunteers.

Working with volunteers isn’t as easy as working with employees. They aren’t as qualified sometimes, they aren’t as reliable, and they may have other commitments or obligations. Nevertheless, if so many of our state parks, zoos, museums and botanical gardens can work so well with volunteers, why can’t the National Park Service?  And since solutions to overcrowding and the lack of funding for more staff  don’t seem imminent, maybe it’s time for every park to look seriously, creatively, and quickly at what volunteers can do and how they can help. 


Volunteers are great ... as long as they have the right temperment, are dedicated and responsible and possess the right training. It would be even more helpful to use volunteers with a background in geology, biology, botany, or park history.  Visitors clue in to a volunteer's attitude and their park knowledge; I know I certainly do.  Equally important is the quality of training a volunteer receives from the NPS.  I believe these things are crucial to creating a great volunteer - visitor experience.

I imagine there is also a great deal of resistance from the union to utilizing volunteers. It is in our state and county whenever they try to add more volunteer positions in the parks.

Which union is that?

@wild places:  I was never aware of union dues or any union activities in the western parks where I worked; I doubt park unions as powerful as you suggest have sprung up in the 15 years since my retirement.

There is quite a large gray area between successful volunteer programs and none.  Without proper management planning and employee training, volunteers can be one more burden for already overworked field staff.   These rank & file employees often end up asked to serve as  planners, motivators and supervisors, but without supervisor pay.

At Olympic, volunteers built new 'Nature' trails almost every year for two decades. while about a tenth of the existing park trail mileage was mostly dashed lines on the maps.  No wonder their deferred trailwork maintenance backlog had grown to almost five and a half million dollars by 2015:

First and foremost, thanks for your service to the national park sites you have worked at. With that now said, you don't have a clue about what you are talking about. Having worked for the NPS as a supervisor for many years, I can personally tell you that both supervising, hiring and training VIP's is 10 times more work than supervising, hiring and training paid NPS rangers.  Also, at the end of the day, they end up costing about the same.  Your notion that these people are free, is really misinformed.  The park has to pay for the VIP housing/camping pad and at the last park I worked at, that total came to almost $500 a month. Sometimes VIP's get stipends, but that is rare. That would be an additional $15 a day. Volunteers, who tend to be older, need a lot more training, supervision, guidance and feedback than paid NPS employees. There is always exceptions to the rule, but over my years of supervision, I can name on one hand the amount of VIP's who didn't require intense supervision as well as VIP's who were able to do the full amount of "ranger duties." The cost to the government in my salary and that of my paid staff in supervising and training these VIP's is a lot. That paid time adds up to the total cost of these VIP's as well.   Most of the time, VIP's only want to work the minimum hours required a week (30) and they mostly can't do the really physical stuff like guided hikes, environmental ed with kids, and meeting the standards of what a good interpretive program is. At the end of the day, using VIP's or paid NPS employees ends up being a wash in cost.  When I hire a seasonal NPS ranger, they tend to come pre-trained, they know the interpretive standards, and I don't need to be constantly watching them or giving them feedback on a daily basis.  Again, I realize that there are amazing volunteers out there. I have had a handful of great ones over the years. But, overall, my experience with the 80 to 100 VIP's that I have hired, trained and supervised over the years, has led me to one conclusion. They are great as a body behind a desk, but they aren't able to fulfill the role of the park ranger. They end up costing me a lot more of my time and energy. Which, if you are a supervisor in the NPS, is very, very precious.  I love VIP's, I really do, but when I look at how much of my time has to be spent poo pooing to the every need that VIP's require, it's exhausting. Over the years, some of my major personnel issues (sexual harrassment, assault of an employee, cleanliness, theft, unable to fulfil work duties, anger management issues, visitor complaints) has been with VIP's. Overall, the Volunteers in the Parks program is great, but very limited. And it certainly isn't free.

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