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Park budget crunch

Volunteers step up to the plate at C&O park as staff dwindles

Volunteers step up to the plate at C&O park as staff dwindles

July 12, 2005|by ADAM BEHSUDI

WASHINGTON COUNTY

adamb@herald-mail.com

It's hard to imagine having a historical park without a historian on staff, but that's the situation the C&O Canal National Historical Park is in.

Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt said he hopes to fill between 10 and 12 positions in the next six months, including the position of historian.

"We'd love to have more staff and a larger budget but, really, who wouldn't?" Brandt said.

With an overall limit in full-time staffing, Brandt said volunteer programs and partnerships are a necessary part of the park's daily operations.

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About half of the park's employees work in Washington County, either at the park headquarters in Hagerstown or along the canal, where there are two visitor centers at Hancock and Williamsport, Brandt said.

In 1996, when Brandt started working at the park as an assistant superintendent, he said there were 128 full-time employees. This year, he said there are between 90 and 93 full-time employees.

Budget requirements mandate the park spend no more than 80 percent of its budget on full-time salaries. Rising salaries and a new retirement program that pays up to 56 percent of benefits have led to a reduction in full-time employees, he said.

Brandt said most interpretive staff can provide the nearly 3 million annual visitors with answers to historical questions, but without a full-time historian, the park's cultural resources department is without a staff.

John Noel, partnerships and volunteer coordinator for the park, said there were 2,396 people that volunteered 48,868 hours during fiscal year 2004. He said the number of volunteers has "increased substantially" since he started working at the park four years ago.

"We've come to depend on them to do certain tasks," he said.

Noel said about 2,000 volunteers spend time on service projects like trash cleanup, flood recovery, and campsite and towpath maintenance. The remainder, considered "staff volunteers," are used on a more regular basis, primarily in visitor centers. Noel said this allows the limited number of rangers to be out in the field and the community, rather than just "sitting behind a desk."

Noel said that if park volunteers had been compensated in 2004, their combined pay would have totaled $840,040.

He said the massive volunteer effort not only helps out an often over-stretched staff, but connects people with the park, giving them a sense of stewardship.

"If somebody cares about something, they want to take care of it," Noel said.

Carla Beasley is in charge of interpretive programs for 143 miles of the canal, which stretches for 184.5 miles. When Beasley came to the park three years ago, she had three full-time employees and at least four seasonal employees. Today, she has only one full-time employee.

Volunteer programs, partnerships with community groups and college interns have allowed the park to continue offering programs and services to visitors.

Beasley said lock houses are being staffed by volunteer groups, a volunteer bike patrol acts as the staff's eyes and ears on the towpath and some volunteers have even delved into doing historical research for the park.

"We're able to have these visitor services that we wouldn't be physically able to offer without them," Beasley said of the volunteers.

Herb Doggett has been a volunteer with the Towpath Trailblazers since their inception in 1999. He first joined to escape the repetitiveness of riding a stationary bike for exercise after heart surgery. Volunteers are expected to patrol the trail at least 40 hours between the months of April and September, he said.

"We're there to be of help to the runners or the hikers or the other people on their bikes," Doggett said.

Volunteers carry radios, wear orange vests and are trained in CPR and first aid. They also help people with basic bike repairs.

The Western Maryland Consortium, a workforce development organization, provides two young employees as part of a summer youth program. Deb Gilbert, the summer coordinator, said the Consortium pays the teen workers, who work out of the Hancock section of the park.

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