Valdosta Daily Times

Features

July 7, 2013

Volunteering in America’s National Parks

- — Recent retirement may be causing you to search for an activity to occupy your newly discovered leisure. Or, perhaps, you aren’t quite there yet, but retirement is fast approaching and you’re unsure how you will fill the spare hours.  

Maybe you are a teacher interested in a summer free of housework, yard work, fix-it projects, and listening to your in-laws talk about their health problems. You want an activity that is enjoyable, worthwhile, and personally rewarding.

If so, you might want to consider volunteering at one of the America’s 401 national park units.

The National Park Service (NPS) actively recruits volunteers to assist in necessary aspects of operating its parks, monuments, seashores, battlefields, and more. Volunteers have become increasingly important in light of tight budgets faced by our country’s national park units. Whether you are handy at fixing things, friendly and outgoing with strangers, or just enjoy the great outdoors, the National Park Service almost certainly has a place for you as a volunteer.

The need for volunteers in our national parks is sufficiently important that the National Parks Volunteers-In-Parks (VIP) Program was enacted in 1970 by Congress in order to facilitate volunteer assistance. Each year, tens of thousands of individuals volunteer millions of hours of their time while working side-by-side with National Park Service employees. Volunteers staff campgrounds, maintain trails, provide information in the visitor centers, and offer natural history programs for visitors. Many volunteers already live nearby a park and work only a few hours a week. Others volunteer for special events at nearby parks. Many volunteers commit to several months of what is essentially full-time employment.

How about a summer in Yellowstone, America’s first national park? This sprawling park with geysers, mud pots, and canyons is a great place to spend two or three months. Wouldn’t it be great to picnic near Lower Yellowstone Falls on your day off? Perhaps you would enjoy a summer serving as campground host. Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument was looking for a volunteer campground host earlier this year. The position was to last from late May through September. This seems an excellent time to escape the heat and humidity of South Georgia.

Oregon Caves National Monument this spring listed an opening for a youth and education outreach assistant. Curecanti National Recreation Area in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains posted six openings for campground hosts. Natural Bridges National Monument in southeastern Utah was looking for a volunteer to help staff the visitor center, patrol the trails, and assist in the monument’s small campground. The night skies in this monument can be spectacular. These are just a few of the types of opportunities that are available for individuals interested in becoming national park volunteers.

Some national park units offer housing — often quite modest — for volunteers willing to stay the season. Other parks offer free RV sites with hookups. In either case, the park generally expects a volunteer to work 32 hours per week. Because many parks don’t have available housing, the chance of landing a volunteer position improves for those who have an RV in which to live. Still, opportunities are available for individuals who require temporary housing. For example, limited volunteer housing is available in Alaska’s Denali National Park during summers. For the hardy and really adventurous, projects are available in Denali during the winter months when park housing is easier to come by.

So where do you begin? First, consider areas of the USA in which you would prefer to work. Perhaps you need some relief from our humidity and would like to spend several months in the Southwest. If so, check for openings at the many parks in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, or parts of Texas. Maybe you prefer a summer in the Northwest, in which case you should check for opportunities at parks in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, or Montana. A summer in Montana’s Glacier National Park would be something to remember. Or maybe you yearn only to spend several months in Yellowstone. Why not take the plunge and look into volunteering in an Alaska park?

If you are interested in volunteering during the winter months check for opportunities in Florida, Texas, or Arizona. Some individuals and couples essentially become full-time volunteers by moving among multiple parks throughout the year, often taking several weeks off to enjoy their travel between parks.

Of course, these are volunteer positions, so don’t expect to earn an income. On the positive side, you aren’t likely to spend much money. The things you will most treasure from a national park volunteer experience — new acquaintances, wildlife in its natural habitat, sparkling night skies, a sense of performing a worthwhile service — don’t cost anything. It’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

Although it is a little late to consider volunteering for the current summer, it is not too early to think about next summer. Or, perhaps, the upcoming fall when you may find a spot at a park like Big Bend National Park, one of our favorites.

Additional information about volunteering in America’s national parks is available at http://www.nps.gov/getinvolved/upload/vip_brochure.pdf.  A listing of volunteer openings by park unit or by state is available at http://www.nps.gov/gettinginvolved/volunteer/opportunities.htm. A map with locations of all National Park Service units is available at http://hfc.nps.gov/carto/PDF/NPSmap2.pdf.  Volunteer postings are not always complete or up-to-date so it may be wise to contact individual parks and inquire about volunteer opportunities. Most listings will appear several months prior to a park’s prime season. Also, check the websites of individual parks in which you are interested. Go to the site index and look for “volunteer” under “Support your park.” You will also find contact information for the park.  

David and Kay Scott are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). They reside in Valdosta.

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