Mount Rainier: The 21st Century Volunteer

Mount Rainier National Park

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Shelton Johnson: America’s National Parks are a uniquely American idea, and some of our most beautiful lands have been set aside “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” In 2009, over 285 million people visited the National Parks; and to keep the parks running smoothly, contractors repaired roads, concessionaires staffed inns and shops, and over 20,000 permanent and seasonal staff managed the parks and their resources. But few people know that in addition to the staff, many parks have a vibrant volunteer community to help manage those vast resources. Washington state’s Mount Rainier is one of those parks.

Ruth Graves: Long ago I started thinking that maybe it would be fun to be a park naturalist, and lo and behold, when I got into, well into retirement, I finally had the opportunity to volunteer as a park interpretive ranger.

Kevin Bacher: Last year we, our volunteers, contributed more than 70,000 hours of service to the park, which is equivalent to hiring an extra hundred and forty seasonal employees. We could never get as much work done without the help of our volunteers, and we could never protect the park and its resources as well, or serve its visitors as well without the help of the volunteers that work in just about every aspect of the park.

Shelton Johnson: In fact, on average, for every park member, there are seven volunteers working in the parks.

In late 2006, two natural disasters struck Mount Rainier. On November 6th and 7th, 18 inches of rain fell in less than 36 hours, more than ten times the usual amount for that time of year. Within hours, the downpour created raging floods. Trails, bridges, and whole campgrounds were completely washed away. Large stretches of roads were obliterated, or buried under hundreds of tons of rubble. A month later, a storm with sustained winds of over 60 miles an hour compounded the damage the park had already suffered. The combined effect of these two events was devastating, preventing people from getting to places in the park which were now too dangerous or had become completely inaccessible. Volunteers played a critical role in the park’s recovery. Their response reflected a public that knows and loves Mount Rainier.

Volunteer: We are very interested in volunteering in the cleanup of Ohanapecosh Campground. Our family has enjoyed camping there for over forty years.

Shelton Johnson: Offers of help poured in from hundreds of people. The sheer number of volunteers was unprecedented.

Randy King: One of the things that we also learned in that early stage was that it takes an organizational structure to actually manage a volunteer program, and you, how do you manage a group of volunteers coming in, so we worked with the Student Conservation Association, Washington Trails Association, and others to provide some of the crew leadership to actually go out and, you know, train people how to do the work and to make sure they can do it safely, so we can accomplish the work and nobody gets hurt.

Shelton Johnson: Once the initial crisis was over, many of those working on the flood recovery effort wanted to continue volunteering, and the park staff looked for new ways to incorporate the skills of these talented and enthusiastic people.

Kevin Bacher: Well, what we want to do now is to build on the connections that we’ve made in the community through the flood recovery and all of the partnerships that we’ve built in the community during the flood recovery effort, and we want to use these partnerships and these connections to make the volunteer program stronger, to provide more opportunities for volunteers, to provide more diverse opportunities for volunteers, and to provide opportunities that will be really, tremendously helpful to the park.

Shelton Johnson: One example of these opportunities was a project to analyze and catalogue the huge collection of photographs that document the development of Mount Rainier National Park.

Jim Miltimore: The photograph project is extremely interesting, lots of historical pictures, some like by Asahel Curtis, you could tell his work right away, photos that were in a world by themselves, you know, whenever one of them came up you’d say oh, this has got to be by Curtis, and his work was so much different from the other photographers, and all of the historical ones going back from, you know, some of them were from before the park was a park, and it was really, really interesting.

Shelton Johnson: People’s impact on the park is only part of the volunteers’ story.

Randy King: And I think, again, the value is not only to the park, in terms of the service that they provide, that we could never replicate in other ways, but I think, I think there’s tremendous benefit for the individual, in terms of that personal connection, being able to give back to a place has been very important to them and remains very important to them as well.

Shelton Johnson: Many volunteers return year after year. So what is it that keeps them coming back?

Ruth Graves: My son told me, and I think it’s a fairly commonly known thing, that if you have a passion, it keeps you young; and so I maybe should pursue this passion of mine, by coming back. So, every year I wonder, and then I’m drawn back. It’s, it’s definitely the high spot of my year.


Volunteers help in every aspect of Mount Rainier National Park, from visitor services to organizing the park's curatorial collection. In 2007, they played a critical role in repairing flood damage.

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