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Robert Speik volunteers for the Forest Service in 1997

Volunteers do their part for parks
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
January 19, 1997

At age 70, Robert L. Speik of Bend, Oregon, has left the world of mortgage banking far behind, and nowadays he spends much of his time from spring into fall hiking the trails of Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness as a volunteer Wilderness Ranger for the U.S. Forest Service.

In winter, he strides into the rugged woodlands of the surrounding Cascade Range on snowshoes, sometimes leading groups of novices (I was one of them) on wilderness survival treks. But often he goes alone.

In mid-March, he recalls, “I had a very enjoyable two-hour snowshoe to the new Swede Ridge Shelter” in Deschutes National Forest, which he was inspecting. There, “I stoked up the stove, boiled snow, cooked my dinner and enjoyed a solitary evening looking out over Broken Top and listening to Tumalo Falls across the valley. I slept in a snow bank sheltered from the wind and was plenty warm in my down bag.”

As an outdoor enthusiast, Speik says he is living a busy, strenuous and rewarding retirement doing what he loves while at the same time contributing to the preservation of the wilderness. He is one of tens of thousands of Americans who donate from a day to a year or more of time and talents on volunteer programs at state and federal park and forest lands.

Now is not too early to begin thinking about a volunteer vacation next summer. The most popular parklands tend to get applications from many more volunteers than can be accepted. In a time of tight state and federal budgets, volunteer programs are “an important way for us to get more things done,” says Gary Waugh, a spokesman for Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, which runs an extensive volunteer program in Virginia’s 28 state parks. “Volunteers are a tremendous help to this park,” says Alisa Lynch, volunteer coordinator at Big Bend National Park in Texas.

The Forest Service estimates that an average of 100,000 volunteers annually contribute $35 million in labor, according to Don Hansen, program manager for Volunteers in the National Forests. Volunteers are recruited annually by the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and many state park systems. Alaska operates a particularly extensive summer program in 115 state parks. A vacation in a beautiful setting doesn’t come much cheaper.

Probably the most popularly sought position is campground host. In exchange for a free campsite, a host keeps an eye on campground operations greeting other campers and answering their questions and assisting with litter pickup and maintenance. Many participants are recreational vehicle owners who select a favorite location and settle in for a month or an entire season. At many campgrounds, tent campers also are invited to serve as hosts.

But a variety of other talents also are in demand. At Big Bend, a retired engineering professor recently volunteered to teach surveying skills to the permanent staff, Lynch says. And the park can always use skilled plumbers and carpenters. Volunteers with good communications skills serve in the visitor center, providing information and leading interpretive walks and talks.

Alaska’s state parks are looking for back-country ranger assistants, natural-history interpreters, park caretakers, researchers, trail repair crews and campground hosts. Five ranger assistants are needed, for example, at the Chena River State Recreation Area, 250,000 acres of forest and tundra about 30 miles northeast of Fairbanks. Duties include brush cutting, wood cutting, painting, routine janitorial work, small structural repairs and litter pickup. In exchange for an eight-week summer commitment, volunteers are lodged in rustic cabins and receive an expense allowance of $50 a week.

Since 1989, the Forest Service has sponsored a program called Passport in Time, aimed at recruiting volunteers for a couple of days or a week to assist rangers in cultural projects, such as archaeological digs and historical restorations on national forest lands. An average of 100 projects are scheduled each summer (and a few in other seasons), each usually led by a Forest Service archaeologist or researcher.

Next summer’s list of projects is not yet available. “We are seeing a growing interest in educational travel or ‘doing’ vacations,” says Jill A. Osborn, national coordinator for the program. “The public is concerned about the environment and anxious to be actively involved in caring for it.” People enjoy “getting their hands dirty helping us care for resources,” and families, who are welcome, can have fun together while providing “education and inspiration for their children in the process.” The Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees 460 lakes throughout the United States, started its volunteer program in 1994. One of its recent volunteer projects involved planting cypress trees on a stream feeding Lake Barkley in western Kentucky.

The corps attracted 500 volunteers in its first year and more than 1,200 last year. “We have so many lakes, we need that many volunteers,” says Gayla Mitchell, volunteer coordinator. People interested in volunteering have many options. They can join “resident” programs in park and forest lands near their homes. They can contribute time and skills as members of such groups as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Sierra Club, American Hiking Society, the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Audubon Society, which tackle volunteer projects on a group basis.

Some college students earn academic credits as volunteer interns. And a great many people volunteer as a way of exploring the nation’s parks and forests cheaply. For many programs, the minimum age is 18 (although it is 16 for some), and generally there is no maximum age. The Forest Service’s Passport in Time program, in which projects last no more than a few days, has begun accepting families with youngsters, according to coordinator Osborn, an archaeologist.

Some volunteer work can be extremely strenuous because of the mountainous terrain or require special skills, such as wilderness survival, canoeing expertise and trail-building experience. But many other projects require no special talents except, perhaps, an ability to live in rustic conditions, sometimes alone but often in a group situation. Training frequently is available.

Volunteers tend to be well-educated, highly motivated self-starters with a love of the outdoors, the program coordinators say. Not surprisingly, a great many are older, retired Americans. But the volunteer programs also attract college students, many of them interested in natural-resource professions, or young adults who are between jobs and use their free time to enjoy a wilderness experience.

Gary M. Stolz, outdoor recreation planner for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is an ardent believer in volunteer efforts. “I started my career as a volunteer at 11 at a wildlife refuge in Connecticut,” he says, and he continued as a volunteer through high school and college.

If you are interested in a full-time job in a park or forest agency, it’s a way “to get your foot in the door.” Depending on the agency, volunteers may receive free camping and other recreational privileges in exchange for their work. Some parks and forests, among them Big Bend, provide cabins, house trailers or bunkhouse accommodations at no cost. “The scenery is great, but the housing is not,” says Lynch.

The volunteer who gets the position of back-country ranger assistant at Alaska’s Nancy Lake State Recreation Area north of Anchorage will be assigned a cabin without running water or electricity. On the other hand, it does come equipped with a motorboat or at least a canoe.

Some volunteers are offered an expense allowance, but most should expect to pay food and transportation costs.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel





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