Can parks preserve quality service?

A National Park Service ranger with a group in Southeast Alaska

TEXT OF STORY

BOB MOON: Looking to cut the cost of doing business? There's no method more fool proof than this one: Don't pay your employees. Let them work for free.

Doesn't always work, but the National Park Service sees it as part of the solution. The government agency has 154,000 volunteers across the country. And President Bush hopes to add 11,000 more in the next few years.

Now, as Marketplace's Jeremy Hobson reports, some park service employees are complaining that the quality of service is suffering — and so is morale.


jeremy hobson: It's a crisp sunny morning several thousand feet up in the mountains of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. A group of park service employees and volunteers are packed into a van, and they're making their way through the winding mountain passes.

Reed Engle: That is the trace of the transmountain highway that existed from the 18th century . . .

Reed Engle is a 20-year veteran of the park service, and now he's the cultural resource specialist at Shenandoah. He's showing off some of his recent discoveries to the people who will be giving tours of the park.

ENGLE: Most of this you probably know but I'm not sure if Bob and Barb know some of these facts. . .

Bob and Barb Hare are volunteers. They're retired and back for their second year at Shenandoah. This time, they've got a pretty good gig.

BARB HARE: We stay in the creole cabin which is President Hoover's doctor — Dr. Boone . . . and his personal aide stayed in that, so it's a nice little cabin.

That's right. They're living in what used to be a presidential retreat in exchange for giving tours for 12 weeks in the summer. Now, it's no Camp David, but it ain't too shabby. The park service is more than happy to give it to them because it needs their help.

Karen MICHAUD: It does give us opportunities to get work done that we otherwise couldn't.

Karen Michaud is chief of interpretation at Shenandoah. She praises the work of volunteers but warns there's a fine line when it comes to using them.

MICHAUD: The temptation to use more volunteers is there, but frankly there isn't enough paid staff to monitor, train, take care of any more volunteers.

That's because as volunteer numbers have gone up, the number of paid employees hasn't. Michaud says 40 permanent positions at the park are currently vacant and Washington isn't providing the money to fill those jobs.

You get a different view on the 11th floor of an office building in downtown D.C.

Joy PIETSCHMANN: Really, volunteers help us in so many different areas.

Joy Pietschmann runs the park service's volunteer program. She points to the raw numbers: 154,000 volunteers, 5.1 million hours of service, $18.04 value per volunteer hour.

PIETSCHMANN: The National Park Service would not be able to provide the same level of services without the assistance of our volunteers.

Park employees say that's partly because volunteers are replacing paid staff, usually as they retire. Karen Michaud says it's not as simple as swapping one person out for another.

MICHAUD: If you were to take a permanent job and try to run it with volunteers, it would probably take five volunteers to replace one paid person.

Critics inside and outside of the park service say all these volunteers are cutting the quality for you, the visitor. They say volunteers don't have the same career investment as paid staff. They don't have the same knowledge about the parks. And Ron Tipton of the National Parks Conservation Association says they aren't as reliable.

Ron TIPTON: Let's face it. Volunteers can get up in the morning — and this happens — and say, "I don't really feel like going out to the park today and spending a half a day in the park."

Tipton makes sure to add that he greatly appreciates the work of volunteers. Karen Michaud puts it this way.

MICHAUD: Paid staff should be the Chevrolet. Using volunteers should get you to the Cadillac.

If a proposed boost in the Park's budget goes through, the parks might be at the level of at least a Buick soon. President Bush's 2008 budget request would add $230 million to the parks, as well as 3,000 paid employees.

I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

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