Sept. 18, 2004 – To celebrate National Public Lands Day, the government asked people to give something back to their public lands by volunteering to fix trails, weed out invasive species, build bridges and mend fences at national parks and forests around the country. About 90,000 volunteers were expected to participate today in the 11th annual National Public Lands Day.
To reward their efforts, the government has given volunteers a free day pass to be used at any park, forest or attraction run by the five participating agencies -- the US Forest Service, National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Army Corps of Engineers. Entrance to public lands was also free today -- normally most public lands have access fees ranging from $5 to $20.
The Challenge of Volunteerism
It may seem hard to find anything negative about spending a day out in nature, breaking a sweat to spruce up our parks and woodlands.
But Scott Silver, a scientist and environmentalist in Bend, Ore., sees a sinister subtext to National Public Lands Day. He views it as part of the administrationâ€™s attempts to detract public attention from the budget cuts and service cuts plaguing our national parks and forests. And he sees it as a way to promote volunteerism, which more than just being a feel-good way to spend a day, has been a key component of moves to privatize and reduce government services including upkeep of national forests and parks.
In August the Office of the Inspector General issued a report showing parks employees perceive a â€œculture of fearâ€ in which anything they say contrary to the official line will be used to fire or otherwise retaliate against them.
Volunteering "is like motherhood and apple pie, what could be wrong with it?" Silver asked. "Well, in this case thereâ€™s a lot wrong with it."
The volunteers pitching in on September 18 were essentially doing work that paid union employees would normally do. Of course one day of volunteer labor can hardly translate into job cuts for paid staff, but in the larger picture critics like Silver see National Public Lands Day as part of a wide-ranging campaign to get Americans to volunteer to do work -- whether in child and elder care or land maintenance or other fields -- that is now done by public sector employees.
Volunteerism is the main tenet of Take Pride in America, the US Interior Department project that was a major booster of National Public Lands Day. Created by Ronald Reagan, Take Pride in America fell dormant in the mid-1990s and was re-launched last year to promote volunteering in a wide range of areas. The project calls on people to "share in the responsibility of protecting our public lands by providing skills, resources and volunteer labor," according to its web site.
"When people volunteer they feel more invested in public lands. It changes how you think about them every day. If you see a pop can that someone left on the bike trail, youâ€™re going to pick it up," said Martie Allbright, executive director of Take Pride in America.
The main organizer of National Public Lands Day is the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEETF), a nonprofit created by Congressional mandate in 1990 with the express purpose of increasing private investment in public lands and forming public-private partnerships.
"The Forest Service and the Park Service have always looked to volunteers to help do whatâ€™s needed to be done, and they probably will look even more to volunteers in the future," said NEETF National Public Lands Day coordinator Robb Hampton.
A former naturalist who worked at various parks including Crater Lake, Zion and Yosemite, Owen Hoffman likes to volunteer as a way to reconnect with the forests and get a taste of his old career. "There are a lot of older people who want to work in parks, and a lot of people who used to work in parks who want to return," he said.
But Hoffman has seen the parks change drastically over the years, with increasing service cuts and "overspecialization" of rangers, and he said he could see how a massive push for volunteering would fit into this picture.
"All these volunteers doing work further erodes opportunities for professional workers," Hoffman noted. "On one hand, volunteerism is great, but it shouldnâ€™t be used as an excuse to make inroads to privatization and reduce the workforce. They are slashing budgets to a point where [the Park Service] canâ€™t operate without volunteers. The professional workforce is a skeleton of what it once was."
Paying for Parks
Meanwhile the fact that a free day pass is considered reward for volunteering highlights the reality that most public lands are not free for the public to use.
"Itâ€™s a regressive policy," said Silver, talking aboutcharging fees for use of public land use. "It means middle class Americans can enjoy public lands without them being littered by low-income people."
Joyce Biro, the recreations fee coordinator for the US Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest, said that the majority of national forests are still free to use, but parks and forests that include higher levels of development like bathrooms, boat launches or visitorsâ€™ centers charge fees for maintenance.
"The opposition [to fees] says that federal taxes should be covering that," she explained. "And they do to a certain extent, but if you just wait for funds from the feds they might never trickle down for that particular development. We charge fees in areas with higher rates of development, because youâ€™re paying for those amenities."
Jennifer Eberlein, recreation fee manager for the US Forest Service, noted that entrance fees are kept within a given park or forest, giving local rangers more flexibility and control in using the funds.
"We use it for garbage pick-up and more patrols," she said. "We do surveys to ask people what they want to see more of, and the top two things are garbage pick-up and cleaning the restrooms more often."
National parks and forests are turning to sponsorships from private companies like Toyota and volunteers as budget cuts made by the Bush administration over the past few years have had a notable effect on staffing levels and services. A report earlier this year by the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association said the parks are being under-funded by as much as $600 million a year.
â€˜Culture of Fearâ€™ in the Park Service
Safety, maintenance and access have been hurt at parks around the country because of the cuts, while at the same time park employees are being pressured to keep quiet about the effects. In August the Departmentâ€™s of the Interiorâ€™s Office of the Inspector General issued a report based on a survey of nearly 10,000 park and forest employees. The majority of respondents said perceive a "culture of fear" in which anything they say contrary to the official line will be used to fire or otherwise retaliate against them.
In December 2003 National Park Service chief Teresa Chambers was placed on administrative leave and later fired after she told a Washington Post reporter that parks were understaffed and suffering. Her appeal for reinstatement is still going through administrative channels.
"If you go against the grain, you definitely put your job on the line," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group representing park service and other government workers. "Thereâ€™s a greater fear of retaliation."
The effects of the budget cuts are widespread, as is the impact of requirements related to the so-called "War on Terror." The Homeland Security Department is demanding parks beef up security functions but provides no extra resources with which to do so. The National Parks Conservation Association report says that $50 million of the $600 million funding shortage is due to requirements for more officers at "icons" like the Golden Gate Bridge and Statue of Liberty.
Reportedly as a result of the reprioritization of security efforts, American Indian artifacts have been stolen, some facilities have deteriorated, ancient rock formations have been left unguarded and guided tours have at some sites have been eliminated or drastically reduced.
Critics fear the cost of maintaining public lands is being balanced against their potential revenue-making ability, and decisions made according to that criteria. If they are right, such a paradigm represents a drastic departure from the original mandate of the various agencies charged with tending to federal lands.
"Not long ago we understood that public lands were a public good, and encouraged people to use them," said Silver. "Now weâ€™re looking at public lands as something that can be branded and packaged and sold. Before we were in the business of maintaining resources, now weâ€™re looking at them as prepackaged experiences with a certain value and a certain cost."