Serving the parks

Volunteers keep national parks open

Volunteers keep national parks open

July 23, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

TRI-STATE - The National Park Service is looking for a few good men.

And women.

And youths.

A national park is a complex thing, given its size and the number of services offered to visitors. And park service budgets don't always keep up with the maintenance and personnel required.

To help take up the slack, national parks throughout the country rely on volunteers. The local parks are no exception.

"Volunteers have always been important," said Sally Griffin, volunteer coordinator at Catoctin Mountain Park. "They're an integral part of park operations. Before, they were kind of an extra. They're now part of programming integrated into all of our work ... All people in the park work with volunteers."

"I would be lost without our volunteers," said Kathy Sholl, public affairs assistant at the C&O Canal National Historical Park. "They're part of the National Park Service family."


Volunteer coordinators say the number of volunteers - and the number of hours they contribute - has been steadily rising over the past five years. In the last fiscal year, volunteers worked nearly 13,000 hours - the full-time equivalent of six year-round staff members - at Catoctin Mountain Park.

At Antietam National Battlefield, volunteers contributed nearly 20,000 hours of work, or enough for almost 10 full-time staff members. And along the C&O Canal, 2,746 volunteers contributed a total of 46,536 hours during fiscal year 2005.

By comparison, 1,516 volunteers worked 28,148 hours on the canal in fiscal 2000.

Christie Stanczak, volunteer coordinator at Antietam, said she believes the number of volunteer contributions this year already is outstripping last year's.

David Tune, an intern who helps coordinate volunteers at the canal, said that so far this year, he has received 53 new volunteer applications from the Internet alone.

Opportunities abound

So what is there for a park service volunteer to do?

Just about anything.

Volunteers work at visitors centers. Plant trees. Bike on the canal. Catalog photographs. Pore over historic documents. The list is practically endless.

At Antietam National Battlefield, volunteers greet tourists at the visitors center, or get their hands dirty helping restore areas of the battlefield.

Every December, volunteers place 23,110 luminarias on the battlefield to memorialize the number of dead, wounded and missing in the 1862 battle. More than 900 volunteers placed the lights last year, and there's a waiting list of people who want to help with the yearly illumination.

An average of 40 volunteers per year help with the annual Salute to Independence held in observance of the Fourth of July. More than 100 help with the annual Torchlight Tour, which features living history volunteers presenting vignettes of the 1862 Maryland Campaign.

Stanczak said more than 200 volunteers helped the Natural Resources Division at the park plant trees last year to restore historic orchards that stood at the time of the battle.

Some volunteers serve as "Battlefield Ambassadors," stationed around the battlefield to answer questions and provide help in emergencies.

At the visitors center, volunteers distribute park brochures, give directions and answer questions about the battle.

Help from retirees

Rae Banks, a retired teacher from Williamsport, has been volunteering for 15 years. She can be found staffing the information desk at the visitors center.

"I was always interested in history," she said.

Volunteering at the battlefield seemed a natural way to indulge her interest while helping out.

"I like the people who come here," Banks said. "We have people from all over the world."

While park volunteers come in all ages, a number of retirees have chosen to volunteer in the national parks.

"They're my favorite volunteers," Stanczak said.

Del Vickers has served three years as a volunteer host in the camping areas at Catoctin Mountain Park. Although he lives in Florida, he and his late wife, avid campers, found the park on the Internet and decided to give it a try.

"These woods here's got an attraction no other campground's ever had," Vickers said. Shortly after his wife passed away, he said, he was back - he found Catoctin to be a good place to heal.

"I like meeting people from all over," Vickers said. "They're some of the easiest people to talk to here."

His "job" is to "be here and answer questions; clean the campsites," he said. "I don't think of any of it as work; it helps me pass the time."

In another camping area at the park, Ed and Wendy Carr occupy a cabin nestled among several others rented out to groups or individuals. Like Vickers, they volunteer for a month or so every summer as camp hosts.

"It all started after we retired," Ed said. "We joined the Peace Corps, and went to Papua, New Guinea." But illness brought Ed back to the states, and once he recovered, "Wendy wanted to go someplace where they speak English," he teased.

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