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].
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.