Volunteers become Park Service’s public face – November 28, 2006

Volunteers become Park Service’s public face

The Star-Tribune

Casper, Wyoming
November 28, 2006
Retired electrical engineer Ralph Taylor is a “geyser gazer” and 20-year volunteer at Yellowstone National Park. He’s also president of the Geyser Observation and Study Association, a citizen-science group of 300 members.

An annual visitor to Yellowstone since 1966, he has been a valued volunteer and member of the Volunteers in the Parks for 20 years. Starting in mid-July, he and fellow volunteer Dick Powell are the guys who clean out hot pools, geysers and mud pots, scooping out all the weird stuff tossed in by careless visitors.

“We also get lots of questions from the public,” said Taylor, figuring he had 1,500 public contacts last year alone.

According to Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash, volunteers are an important component in meeting visitor needs. “Last year, we had a total of 2,502 volunteers who contributed over 100,000 hours — the equivalent of over 50 full-time employees.”

Taylor is also a Civil War buff, so the Ohio native tries to visit battlefield sites every year, and has noticed that he’s seeing more volunteers than professional staff. “I noticed the same thing when I visited Golden Gate Park in San Francisco — volunteers were everywhere,” he said.

For Taylor and thousands of volunteers across the country, volunteering “is a way to give something back,” he said, at a time when the National Park Service has had to deal with ever-tighter budgets.

Farther West, at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, Lloyd and Larry Smith have retired from teaching public school students and seasonal ranger jobs to volunteer their services at Crater Lake and Mount Rainier.

The brothers were raised 80 miles southwest of Crater Lake and often visited the park as they grew up. As rangers, the identical twins enjoyed working with the public — that includes the added bonus that puzzled visitors couldn’t figure out how “the nice ranger” got around the park so fast.

The Smiths, 67, volunteer to lead snowshoe hikes that leave their school-age charges gasping.

However, the National Park Service’s training guide, “How to Succeed With Volunteers-In-Parks,” candidly recognizes resentment of volunteer programs from park superintendents to rangers — much of it based on fear of losing one’s job and being replaced by volunteers.

Although the Smiths insist that they haven’t seen their former co-workers lose jobs to volunteers, they have seen a growing trend of volunteers becoming the public face of the National Park Service, staffing visitor centers and leading hikes and campfire talks.

“The fun jobs are left for the seasonals and volunteers,” said Lloyd Smith, as professional staff members are increasingly stuck behind desks and burdened by supervisory responsibilities.

So here’s a simple question: Is Volunteers in the Parks, the National Park Service’s volunteer program, an unalloyed good, or a harbinger of disaster to the agency’s rank and file? A clue can be found in findings of a recent federal study: that Park Service officials have compensated for inflation and tight budgets with an ever-increasing reliance on volunteers.

‘A double-edged sword’

Compared to Park Service staffing and budget trends, the Volunteers in the Parks program has experienced explosive growth.

Between 1973 and 2006, volunteers in the Park Service grew by more than 18-fold to 154,000, while the budget grew five-fold (to $2.6 billion) and full-time staff grew by less than three-fold (to 20,056). That’s more than seven volunteers for every full-time Park Service employee.

And there are more volunteers to come. In the proposed 2008 budget, the Bush administration wants 11,000 more volunteers working an additional one million hours by fiscal year 2011, with an extra $2.4 million for full- and part-time volunteer coordinators.

Owen Hoffman, a fellow NPS retiree and volunteer with the Smith brothers at Crater Lake, calls volunteerism in the parks “a double-edged sword,” because it can be used to provide for “that extra margin of excellence,” or can be used as “merely a means to achieve a lower margin of survival.”

He warns that while volunteerism is great, “it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to make inroads to privatization and reduce the work force.” Budgets have been getting so bad that the Park Service can’t operate without volunteers, he said.

Hoffman and other observers understand that baby boomers will soon hit retirement age and swell the ranks of volunteers. What, they ask, happens as the baby boomers die off or eventually become too old and ill to volunteer?

Signs of trouble?

Over-dependence on volunteers seems to be already happening, according to a 2006 Government Accountability Office report which found that park officials — including those in Yellowstone and Grand Teton — have responded to tighter budgets by:

* Increasingly relying on volunteers and nonprofit partner organizations to provide information and educational programs to visitors — traditionally offered by park rangers.

* Reducing services such as visitor center hours, educational programs, basic custodial duties and law enforcement.

* Refraining from filling vacant positions or filling them with lower graded or seasonal employees.

According to the GAO, the trend seems to be accelerating:

* At Badlands National Park, about 65 percent of visitor contacts in 2004 were provided by employees of the park’s nonprofit partner — the Badlands Natural History Association — compared with 45 percent in 2001.

* Grand Teton National Park reduced the interpretive division’s staffing level that was paid out of daily operations funding, from 17 positions in 2001 to 12 in 2005.

* Officials at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks in California told GAO that 60 percent of all visitor center staffing hours in 2005 were provided by their cooperating association, compared with about 10 percent in 2001.

Kathy Kupper, a Park Service spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., acknowledged the difficulties associated with tight or cut budgets and a growing maintenance backlog. She defended the growth of volunteers, saying, “Without volunteers, these visitor programs might not be there.”

That’s not necessarily a good thing, according to Randy Erwin, legislative director for the National Federation of Federal Employees. “There is no getting around the fact that volunteers take away work from paid Park Service workers, and when good government jobs leave an area, it is bad for the economy.”

Bill Willers, emeritus professor of biology at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, goes even further in his criticism of a growing dependence on volunteers. He noted the famous quote by Republican activist Grover Norquist, that government should be starved of funds until it can be “drowned in a bathtub.”

“To the extent that volunteers can fill voids left by the de-funding of governmental programs, the corporate and political forces wishing to drown government … can use the work of volunteers to justify further shrinking of government,” Willers said.

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