Whether you're a recent retiree with time on your hands or a traveler in search of an opportunity to give back, consider volunteering at one of America's 401 national park units. You won't be paid, but you'll enjoy new acquaintances, wildlife in its natural habitat, sparkling night skies -- and a sense of performing a meaningful service.
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 parks. 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.
Volunteers are sufficiently important that the National Parks Volunteers-In-Parks (VIP) Program was enacted in 1970 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 live near a park and work only a few hours a week, sometimes for special events when extra help is needed.
Often volunteers commit to several months of what is essentially full-time employment. Yellowstone, for example, uses about 700 volunteers a year according to Bob Fuhrmann, Yellowstone's Young & Volunteer Program Manager. This sprawling park with geysers, mud pots, and canyons is a great place to spend two or three months.
Some people essentially become full-time volunteers by moving among parks throughout the year, often taking several weeks off to enjoy their travel between jobs.
If you have an RV, consider serving as campground host in one of the many national park units with campgrounds. These parks frequently need volunteers to serve in these roles.
Some national park units offer housing -- often quite modest -- for volunteers willing to stay for the season. Others offer free RV sites with hookups. In either case, the park generally expects a volunteer to work 32 hours per week. Because available housing is limited, the chance of landing a volunteer position improves for those who can live in their own RV. And even in parks with temporary housing, such as in Alaska's Denali National Park, it can be more available in winter than in summer.
READ MORE: Great national park lodges in winter
Current volunteer openings include:
Badlands National Park (South Dakota): Naturalist (Jan. 6–June 13) and Night Sky Program volunteer (May 12–Aug. 29).
Big Bend National Park (Texas): Campground host (May 1–July 31) and visitor center host (May 1–Oct. 31).
Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah): A visitor and resource volunteer for activities related to conservation, visitor info, and backcountry activities (June 1-Sept. 1).
Curecanti National Recreation Area (Colorado): Campground host (May 11–Sept. 7).
Grand Portage National Monument (Minnesota): Interpreter for living history program (May 26–Sept. 1).
Great Sand Dunes National Park (Colorado): Interpretive assistant (April 30–Sept. 20).
Lassen Volcanic National Park (California): Visitor center assistance (May 1–Oct. 31) and campground host to help with trail management (June 1–Dec. 31).
Mount Rainier National Park (Washington): Thirteen volunteer opportunities ranging from campground hosts to working with a butterfly project (June 1-Sept.15).
Ozark National Scenic Riverways (Missouri): Campground host (May 10–Oct.15).
Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona): Interpretation and visitor center assistance (March 1–Sept. 30).
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan): Campground host (June 16–Sept. 30).
So where do you begin? Consider location and weather. Perhaps you live in the Southeast and need relief from the summer humidity. If so, check for volunteer openings in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, or parts of Texas and California. If you're interested in escaping the cold winter, check for opportunities in Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas.
Additional information about volunteering in America's national parks is available at nps.gov/getinvolved/upload/vip_brochure.pdf. A listing of volunteer openings by park unit or by state is available at nps.gov/getinvolved/volunteer.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 is wise to contact individual parks and inquire about volunteer opportunities.
Visit David and Kay Scott at http://mypages.valdosta.edu/dlscott/Scott.html