Blog Post Katherine DeGroff Mar 7, 2019

Helping Parks Recover

How people are volunteering at parks after the longest shutdown in U.S. history

The longest government shutdown in history may be over, but its shadow lingers — in the news, in the homes of those furloughed, in gateway communities whose businesses suffered, and in the parks. For the men and women of the National Park Service, recovering from the shutdown means coming to grips with all that happened during their 35-day absence.

Here at NPCA, we’ve heard the request over and over again from concerned individuals around the country: What can we do to help?

We love your enthusiasm and are compiling a nationwide list of volunteer events to give you a place to start. It is difficult, though, to get a firm handle on all that’s happening at the more than 400 park units that comprise our National Park System.

We do know that park staff have a backlog of day-to-day work to plow through while also ensuring that the parks are safe to visit. At Mount Rainier National Park, for example, park staff returned to work only to find a Sisyphean task: clearing tons of accumulated snow from an 11-mile stretch of road that climbs 2,500 feet in elevation to the main visitor center. Mesa Verde National Park staff confronted a similar situation, with their path to work blocked by snow and a rock slide. At other parks, such as Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, Park Service personnel must tackle the disheartening job of restoring order to campgrounds and restrooms. Certain cleanup projects can’t be given to even the most eager volunteer. And, unfortunately, some damage just can’t be undone. Fragile cultural artifacts and natural landscapes that visitors chose to tag with graffiti, cut down, steal or joyride across may never recover.

Making matters worse, the timing of the shutdown interfered with many parks’ hiring of seasonal staff. Managers at parks such as Saguaro and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks are scrambling to start or complete their hiring to ensure they’re fully staffed come summer. Other parks are grappling with openings made by people who left their positions, unable to afford to go more than a month without pay.

For these reasons and more, devoting the time and resources to organize volunteer events is not an option for many parks, let alone a priority.

Thankfully, some parks have recurring volunteer days that we can track and share, such as Fire Island National Seashore and Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Other parks have affiliated friends groups that are contemplating how best to help. And for the rest, independent ally organizations are just waiting for the green light to start deploying volunteers.

How We’re Making It Happen: Nature Valley’s Commitment to Help Parks

Nature Valley committed $250,000 to support NPCA’s efforts to help parks recover after the partial government shutdown. This includes our work to raise awareness of the shutdown’s impact on national parks, coordinate and promote in-park cleanup opportunities, and encourage volunteerism across the country.

One such group is our partner Clean Trails, which started as a passion project of the two founders, Steve Jewett and Bill Willoughby. Avid hiking buddies, they’d started noticing trash along their favorite trails. Rather than simply gripe about the plastic bottles and other litter dotting the hillsides, they set about removing it with a set of barbecue tongs and a trash bag, one trail at a time. Clean Trails began as an extension of this work and advances Leave No Trace practices while also creating a network of stewards who tackle trailside litter and other projects.

“At Clean Trails,” Jewett says, “we promote a powerful outdoor ethos centered around helping nature stay natural. We encourage people to get out and enjoy the national parks as the treasures they are, but urge them not to stop there.”

“Give back,” Willoughby adds. “Instead of trashing these amazing places, why not leave them better than you found them?”

Encouragingly, the list of those interested in doing just that continues to grow. Finding the right opportunity may just require a smidge of patience.

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Park staff know their parks better than anyone. Once they’ve completed the full assessment on damage and needs, provided for the safety of visitors, and seen to the hiring of their seasonal staff, we’ll be there with our gloves and boots on.

In the meantime, if you want to do something, consider writing a thank you note to the hardworking men and women of your favorite park. You could also pen a few notes to your members of Congress asking them to never allow such a damaging shutdown again.

About the author

  • Katherine DeGroff Associate and Online Editor

    Katherine is the associate editor of National Parks magazine. Before joining NPCA, Katherine monitored easements at land trusts in Virginia and New Mexico, encouraged bear-aware behavior at Grand Teton National Park, and served as a naturalist for a small environmental education organization in the heart of the Colorado Rockies.