How to Volunteer at a National Park

"Experience your America" is the welcoming slogan of the U.S. National Park Service.
"Experience your America" is the welcoming slogan of the U.S. National Park Service.
©iStockphoto.com/Eliza Snow

"Experience your America." It's an inviting proposition, isn't it? It's the welcoming slogan of the U.S. National Park Service.

North America contains some of the most glorious landscapes in the world, from the jagged peaks of the Rockies to the plunging depths of the Grand Canyon, from the thick-hanging moss and vines of the Florida Everglades to the soaring redwoods of  California, from the volcanic peaks of Hawaii to the glaciers of Alaska. In every state, the National Park Service (NPS) works to keep the land beautiful and to preserve native species for generations to come.

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The National Park system encompasses more than 400 parks. But it includes much more than just land. It also manages historic sites and their national registry. It conducts important geological and ecological projects, such as monitoring air and water quality and tracing levels of contaminants and pollutants that could wind up in the food supply [source: NPS]. It works in the relatively new science of bio-acoustics to reduce noise pollution and preserve natural soundscapes, allowing members of various species to hear important mating and warning calls -- and letting visitors find the deep peace that comes only from nature [source: NPS]. It works to educate visitors (and all U.S. citizens) about biology, the environment, history -- even art.

Volunteer work is crucial to all these endeavors. It can be as simple as taking half an hour out of an afternoon hike to pick up litter along a trail -- or as involved as a research internship. NPS volunteers -- of every age, background and ability level -- log millions of hours every year. Perhaps it's only natural: When you see places this beautiful, you want to help them.

In this article, we'll take a look at ways to get involved with the NPS, regardless of your age, skills, location or citizenship.

The Volunteers-in-Parks Program

The NPS Volunteers-in-Parks (VIP) Program was implemented in 1970 to provide a way for the public and the NPS to engage in mutually beneficial relationships. Volunteers provide their skills, enthusiasm and strength to help the NPS function at its best. The NPS, in return, offers volunteers unparalleled opportunities for education and personal growth. Today, the system uses the Web to display all the volunteer opportunities in a given area instantly.

Don't make the mistake of assuming that you have nothing to offer, or that you'll be stuck doing some project you hate. Almost every skill has an application in the NPS. Some parks need computer help and clerical work. Some need help with construction projects or building restoration. Some need tour guides and interpreters. Others need volunteer rangers, who -- depending on the park -- might bring their own RVs and live full-time on the grounds for months, greeting visitors, conducting educational programs and providing camper assistance, as needed [source: Aztec Ruins National Park].

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If your tastes run to science or research, volunteer with a park that is conducting a research project. There are opportunities in archeology, botany, biology, history, geology and ecology.

What's it like to volunteer? For a firsthand glimpse at volunteer work that includes historic-building preservation, species identification and more, take a look at the photo-filled blog "My Year of Living Rangerously" [source: My Year of Living Rangerously]. The VIP program has a very active online community, including a Facebook group, and you should be able to find an answer to just about any question you have [source: Facebook].

One thing to keep in mind: This work can be fun and deeply fulfilling, and that means that some of the most desirable volunteer positions are in high demand. As of May 2009, for example, New Mexico's Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was already accepting applications for the summer of 2010 [source: Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument].

On the next page, we'll look at the VIP application process.

Becoming an NPS VIP Volunteer

If you're interested in becoming a VIP volunteer, you have a few options. You can search for an appropriate opportunity to match your skills and goals on the U.S. national volunteering site [source: Volunteer]. You can choose a national park from the NPS's alphabetical list and inquire directly with the park about volunteer opportunities [source: NPS Volunteer Opportunities]. Or you can find volunteer opportunities at the national parks in your state. In this case, you'll apply through your state's office of national parks.

Depending on the position, you may be subject to a background check, including fingerprinting. Some parks have highly valuable historic artifacts -- or mineral deposits -- and some positions involve working with children or helping get medical assistance to stranded campers, so the background check is in everyone's best interest.

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It may help to have some of your own equipment, though it isn't always necessary. Because of the remote locations of some parks, certain opportunities may require you to own a vehicle or have a state driver's license. Being a volunteer ranger may involve owning your own recreational vehicle (RV) or -- depending on the park -- your own all-terrain vehicle (ATV) or snowmobile. Being a volunteer computer programmer, on the other hand, might involve no equipment more demanding than your own laptop.

If you're volunteering for a position that involves specific skills or training (such as programming computers), expect to provide a resume demonstrating your experience and education. Of course, you'll receive some training and orientation from the NPS, but your own years of experience are important.

On the next page, we'll look at some special opportunities for volunteers in the National Parks.

Special Volunteer Opportunities

As you might expect, with so many thousands of volunteers and projects, managing NPS volunteers is a full-time job. In some cases, it's a full-time volunteer job. Some parks need Volunteer Coordinators, who manage projects and recruit, train and assign volunteer personnel. It helps to have experience in the park's major projects, especially construction and maintenance. It also helps to have certain survival skills, such as CPR certification, first-aid training and basic woodsmanship. But leadership skills and maturity are the most important qualifications you can have -- so it's fortunate that retirees constitute the largest group of NPS volunteers [source: McIntosh]. Obviously, full-time volunteer work asks a lot of a person. Therefore, some Volunteer Coordinators receive reimbursement for their basic living expenses [source: Volunteer].

Volunteers who put in more than 500 hours receive the designation of Master Volunteer Ranger. Those who put in more than 4,000 hours are named to the Presidential Volunteer Ranger Corps. That sounds like the sort of designation that would be relatively rare -- but as of 2004, more than 500 volunteers had already been named to the PVRC [source: McIntosh]. People love their national parks.

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The NPS is a giant organization with a diversity of parks, opportunities and programs matched only by its diversity of needs. Nearly every skill can find a home at the NPS. There are even artist-in-residence positions and internship opportunities. Artists-in-residence provide workshops in visual art to park visitors while interns assist with research projects linked to their fields of study. Whether you want to give an hour, a week or a lifetime, you'll be able to volunteer at the NPS.

On the next page, we'll look at the volunteer opportunities available to people who aren't U.S. citizens.

The International Volunteers-in-Parks Program of the NPS

Volunteering is not an experience restricted to U.S. citizens. The International Volunteers-in-Parks Program (IVIP) brings more than 100 volunteers from around the world into U.S. national parks each year. These visiting volunteers are students, scholars, researchers, environmentalists or park managers in their home countries.

Volunteers receive training in park management, wildlife work and aspects of environmental research. They are selected, in part, based on their ability to bring these new skills back to colleagues and scholars in their home countries. In return, the NPS "gains a fresh perspective on park management" as well as volunteer time [source: NPS IVIP].

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International volunteers have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hone their skills, learn new aspects of their work and experience some of the great areas of the world. Japanese ecologist Naomi Kibe spent a year working in fire management in the Everglades and eventually developed her own education programs for park visitors. Canadian archeologist Peggy Donnelley was able to use her IVIP experience to track the movements of prehistoric peoples across what is now the U.S.-Canada border.

Eefje Smit, a native of the Netherlands, spent three months monitoring water quality and studying fish species preservation in Yellowstone National Park. The work involved climbing to high elevations -- a challenge "for a Dutch girl, used to elevation differences of less than a meter." But her work has important implications for sustaining the food chain in numerous locations. "To me," writes Smit, "the most important lesson is this: When you're interested and open-minded, the world is yours" [source: Smit].

If you're interested in becoming an international volunteer, plan ahead. International Volunteers-in-Parks volunteers are subject to normal U.S. immigration, passport and visa requirements, as well as medical insurance requirements, and IVIP applications typically take several months to be processed. You'll also need to work with local IVIP coordinators to match your training and desire with an appropriate park [source: IVIP].

On the next page, we'll look at some of the benefits of volunteering in the NPS.

Benefits of Being an NPS Volunteer

As with any volunteer experience, those who volunteer for the National Park Service will likely receive benefits proportional to their dedication -- in addition to one or two surprises. Benefits of volunteering can range from the simple change of scenery to the deeply spiritual experience of knowing that you have changed your world for the better.

With so many opportunities for walking, climbing, rafting and hiking -- and so many excuses to explore new areas -- volunteers may discover that their personal fitness improves. In fact, the Department of the Interior actively promotes NPS volunteering and recreation as a way of improving your health [source: DOI]. Exposure to sunshine directly affects your level of serotonin (low levels of this brain chemical can cause depression), so NPS volunteering is a great way to shake off the blues as well as the physical blahs [source: McConnell].

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National Park land may provide an all-too-rare encounter with nature. For a city dweller, park land can offer a refuge of solitude and quiet. It's easy to forget it, but humans may be the species that most needs to have land preserved.

That said, not every national park is outside of the city. It's a volunteer job, for example, to help visitors locate the names of loved ones on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. [source: McIntosh]. This kind of work offers a way to pay tribute to fallen friends -- or to give peace to personal memories.

Working with the NPS provides a connection to local and national heritage. The National Park system includes numerous landmarks -- way stations on the Underground Railroad, the location of the first women's suffrage meeting, Civil War battlegrounds and the landscapes with which Ansel Adams changed photography [sources: Aboard the Underground Railroad, NPS Civil War Web Site, Women's Rights National Park, Yosemite National Park/Ansel Adams Gallery]. Volunteers are likely to learn something new about the people and events that inspire them most. Nothing compares to the experience of walking in your hero's footsteps.

Finally, every volunteer gets the wonderful sensation of having worked to help the world -- by contributing to our store of knowledge or simply by cleaning up. All told, if you love a place, there's no better way to show it than to work for its preservation. If you've never experienced the abiding love of a beautiful corner of the world, maybe it's time to let the NPS show you what you're missing.

To learn more, visit the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Aboard the Underground Railroad: A National Register Travel Itinerary. National Park Service. (Accessed 5/18/09) http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/
  • Ansel Adams Gallery. "Visit Us in Yosemite National Park." 2008. (Accessed 5/18/09) http://www.anseladams.com/content/yosemite/yosemite-national-park.html
  • Kibe, Naomi. "Everglades National Park." NPS IVIP. 2008. (Accessed (5/18/09) http://www.nps.gov/oia/topics/ivip/ivip.htm
  • McConnell, Harvey. "Brain Serotonin Production Directly Related to Degree of Sunlight." Lancet. December 5, 2002. (Accessed 5/18/09) http://www.docguide.com/news/content.nsf/news/8525697700573E1885256C86003D5B1F
  • McIntosh, Phyllis. "Labor of Love." National Park. January 1, 2004. (Accessed 5/18/09) http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-20027324_ITM
  • National Park Service. "Award Winners," "About," "America the Beautiful Program," "International Volunteers-in-Parks Program," "NPS IVIP Application Process," "Yellowstone," "Youth Programs." NPS. (Accessed 5/18/09) http://www.nps.gov/
  • National Park Service Civil War Web Site. "Civil War Parks." NPS. (Accessed 5/18/09) http://cwar.nps.gov/civilwar/
  • National Park Service Junior Rangers. "The Ranger Zone." NPS. (Accessed 5/18/09) http://www.nps.gov/learn/juniorranger.htm
  • Smit, Eefje. "Yellowstone." NPS IVIP. 2007. (Accessed 5/18/09) http://www.nps.gov/oia/topics/ivip/ivip.htm
  • U.S. Department of the Interior. "Recreation." DOI Budget Highlights. 2005. (Accessed 5/18/09) http://www.doi.gov/budget/2005/05Hilites/DH47.pdf
  • Volunteer.gov. "Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument," "Aztec Ruins National Park," "Mount Rainier National Park Volunteer Coordinator." (Accessed 5/18/09) http://www.volunteer.gov/gov/results.cfm?ID=9303
  • Women's Rights National Park. (Accessed 5/18/09)