National Park Service VIPs

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 Indian ruins.

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 in 1864.

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 applicants.

“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 weekends.

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 great feeling.”

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 Volunteers-In-Parks: nps.gov/volunteer.

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