Volunteers bridge gap in park budgets

September 10, 2006|By New York Times News Service

MOUNT WASHINGTON, Mass. -- Ever wonder who builds the stairs on hiking trails deep in the woods? Along the Appalachian Trail near the Connecticut border here this summer, the credit went to a group of young volunteers who spent four weeks turning stray rocks into staircases.

The seven teenagers and two crew leaders are part of the Student Conservation Association, a 50-year-old organization that among other things does grunt work in public outdoor spaces -- cutting trails, building walls, tending plants.

In recent years, the group has taken on the added role of helping the national parks continue programs that might otherwise have been abandoned because of budget cuts.

Dale Penny, the association's president, said his crew of 3,000, mostly high school and college students with a few retirees and professionals on sabbatical, are not labor replacements.

Rather, the students are a cadre of helpers assembled to assist park staff members in any way necessary.

The volunteers work with state and federal land agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Forest Service.

"They're there to support the Park Service and do work that wouldn't otherwise get done," Penny said.

Scott Gediman, a ranger at Yosemite National Park, said the association's interns had supplemented the park's trail efforts, maintaining and repairing some of Yosemite's 800 miles of trails, including some backcountry ones that would have probably gone untended. Other members have filled in as park guides.

"These crews allow us to do more than we can do with our existing budget," Gediman said of the organization and others like it.

"It allows us to keep up with a lot of the extra things, if you will, the kind of things that keep up the margin of excellence."

Kathy Kupper, a National Park Service spokeswoman who recently worked as a ranger at the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Washington, said the Student Conservation Association started running tours on a riverboat that had been taken out of service and restored by local volunteers.

"The only way the park could do it was to hire the SCA because it didn't have the money. They didn't have the staff up there for three years, and the money got absorbed into other things," Kupper said. "A friend of the park group raised all the money for the boat, and there's just no money in the budget there to pay for another ranger. So the SCA will run the boat."

The association is a public-private partnership supplemented by government grants, money from parks' operating budgets and private contributions. It received $23,462,000 in revenue and contributions last year, and spent $22,771,000 on operating expenses.

It deploys three types of workers among various public land agencies. Conservation interns are undergraduate or graduate students who spend three to 12 months working on field projects like land surveying or bird tracking. Interns' expenses are paid, and they receive a stipend.

The association also dispatches interns to tackle large-scale land projects like fire prevention and detection of burn-prone areas and weeding out of invasive plant species. Each summer it also deploys conservation crews of six to eight high school students recruited through their school and two adults on 15- to 35-day labor-intensive projects like clearing and maintaining trails.

The stair-maintenance crew spent eight-hour days hauling rocks from a riverbank and constructing damlike structures that ensure trails drain properly. Showers were nonexistent and meals consisted generally of trail mix and macaroni and cheese, although some crew members got creative, fashioning peanut butter and noodles into a roughing-it approximation of pad Thai.

Though they were craving pizza, the students said that the experience taught them the value of the outdoors and hard work, and that they would do it again.

"I really love nature, and I want to do something important," said Graham Thompson, 17, from Irvine, Calif. "You focus entirely on your project and fall into this groove where it's really all about the work."

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