Jim Black is a middle-age Navajo Indian who works in Navajo National
Monument as one of the Volunteers-In-Parks. As a “VIP,” Black is
approved to lead tours to the park’s protected and ancient Betatakin
During the interpretive hikes, Black draws on his general life
experiences as the great-grandson of a man who escaped the horrors of
the Long Walk, which the United States government forced on the Navajo
Black related the story of Colonel Carson’s roundup of the
Navajo from what is now the park in a straightforward and unemotional
manner. He personalized the story of the ancients who once walked this
valley. And, he talked of his life as a former math and science teacher
on the Navajo Indian Reservation — and as a former rodeo rider who lost
his arm in a train accident en route to an arena. In short, Black’s
talk was fascinating.
After seeing Navajo National Monument — or any other national
park-administered area — you may want to do as Black is doing and serve
with the National Park Service as a VIP. If that’s your goal, then you
should find your strong suit and offer that to the Park Service.
Granted, you may not be the great-grandson of a Navajo warrior — but
you may be a skilled handyman, a competent mechanic, a proficient
record-keeper, a likeable teacher or simply a good people-person.
If you decide to volunteer, you’ll be joining a league of
others who have made immeasurable contributions. Joy Pietschmann, the
service-wide volunteer-program coordinator in Washington, D.C., noted
that the VIP acronym could also be translated to mean Very Important
People: She related that in fiscal year 2003, more than 122,000
volunteers donated 4.5 million hours to our national parks.
“That’s no insignificant amount,” she said. “Their combined
work effort totaled $77.3 million — if it weren’t for them, our parks
would be suffering.”
“Our VIPs are great,” concurred David Dahlen, Glacier National
Park’s chief naturalist, adding that most volunteers tend to be older
and that as the baby boomers retire, he expects there will be more
“Essentially, they want to volunteer, to help protect America’s
natural and cultural heritage for the enjoyment of this and future
generations,” he said. “They want to help the park [and] help people
enjoy the park.”
Of course, not all these people come equipped with motorhomes.
One man wanted to document petroglyphs in Death Valley, California, and
offered his services as a photographer. He had no RV, so in exchange for
his services, the park provided him with an apartment.
Most, however, do have RVs. For example, Clint and Ellen
Boehringer have been parking their RV in Death Valley and providing
character interpretations of people who once lived in the ghost town of
Rhyolite. Another couple, Joe and Mary McGeehan, rely on their RV while
serving as campground host and hostess in Glacier National Park. For 11
summers, this Pennsylvania couple has worked out of their home-on-wheels
while assisting visiting campers. During the course of those years,
they’ve made so many friends within the ranks of the Park Service that
they now consider Glacier their second home.
The point is: If you’ve got an RV, you’re ahead of the game;
all you have to do then is find out what the park of your choice wants,
and tailor your skills accordingly. “Sometimes,” said Dahlen, “our
choices boil down to little more than proof that you’ll be a reliable
person — committed to our season.”
How do you discover where you may be needed? Perhaps the best way is to go to the National Park Service Web site — www.nps.gov” — and check for jobs in your area of interest.
For example, because I live in Montana, I decided to explore
possibilities here. I quickly learned that there were opportunities in
almost every park-affiliated area, including Little Bighorn, Glacier
National Park and a National Recreation Area known as Bighorn Canyon.
Though I didn’t take time to explore all my options, I learned that, in
most cases, I’d use an RV as a base; in fact, oftentimes parks provide
free hookups (depending upon the requirement). Generally, you’ll be
asked for a commitment of time, which may vary from a portion of a
season to the full season.
In Glacier, for instance, the full season runs three to four
months; in Death Valley, it can run as long as half a year. Montana’s
gorgeous Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area offered a free site,
which is not surprising as the job called for a campground host. Whoever
ultimately landed the job committed to obligations similar to those of
campground hosts around the nation. At Bighorn Canyon, the host was
required to work four, eight-hour days per week, which usually includes
Essentially, those job requirements dovetail with what the
McGeehans have been doing all these years in Glacier. And like VIPs
everywhere, they tend to shine in the activities they personally enjoy.
Glacier is a hiker’s park, and though the McGeehans are in their 70s,
they’ve hiked most of the park’s major trails. With the help of
Glacier’s rangers, they assembled a packet of hiker’s maps and provide
recommendations based on personal experience.
“Campers come back at night,” said the McGeehans, “knock on the
door of our camper and ask, ‘Where should we go tomorrow?’ “It’s a
In Glacier, monitoring wildlife is another obligation, for
here, bears are common. Though they’ve seen many — especially at Fish
Creek — they say there’s never been a problem. In fact, Mary says
they’ve only had one startling animal contact.
“Early one morning I heard this pounding noise,” she
remembered, “and I thought it was Joe. But when it kept on, I opened the
door and looked into the face of a pine martin (a large member of the
weasel family). It was just curious, and off it bounded up and into a
nearby pine tree.”
Intimate contact with wildlife and easy access to park trails
are just a couple of the privileges of working in the park, and are
reasons the McGeehans say will keep them coming back. “People ask all
the time how many more years we’ll keep returning to Glacier … I like
to say, ‘Until we die, until we die!'”
Barring poor health, VIP is an arrangement that works well not
only for Jim Black, Mary and Joe McGeehan, and countless others, but
also for park managers. It’s also an arrangement that could work well
for you. There are more than 300 park-administered facilities around the
country, where your talents may be very much in demand.
Where best to use your talents than in a place filled with
nature’s bounties or history’s riches? National Park Service