San Francisco — Last fall, Dave Liboff and Joe Meehan packed their bags and headed west. The Wisconsinite and upstate New Yorker had both graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and were having trouble landing jobs.
Instead of sending out more resumes, they decided to try to get work related to their field at one of the national parks, having heard that they were accepting volunteers.
''When we hit Zion (National Park in Utah) we fell in love with the place,'' Mr. Liboff explains.
That was last December. Since then Roy Given, coordinator of the park's volunteer program, has found the two young naturalists a variety of work. They have pitched in on park maintenance projects, escorted visitors on nature tours, fielded questions at the information desk, and participated in ecological studies. In return, the park has been providing them with room, board, and $5 -a-day pocket money.
Besides adding practical experience to their academic training, Liboff's and Meehan's months of voluntarism have paid off in another way. They recently both landed paid positions as naturalists at Badlands National Park. ''It's been a great experience,'' Liboff summarizes.
More Americans are volunteering to help Uncle Sam run his vast national parks , national forests, and even Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holdings.
At Zion last year, for example, 29 volunteers contributed 7,244 hours of labor valued at $55,000, Mr. Given reports. This is up substantially from 1980, when 12 volunteers donated only 1,400 hours. Not only does volunteer activity allow the Park Service to provide more services, it gives people a chance ''to do something grand and good for the country and park system,'' the coordinator says enthusiastically.
The US Park Service invested $500,000 in 1983 on its Volunteers In the Park (VIP) program. In return, 22,000 people donated more than 1 million hours of labor at 275 parks: an effort valued at $7 million, up 84 percent over the previous fiscal year.
The US Forest Service wrings even more work from volunteers than its sister service. In 1983, some 45,000 volunteers put in $21 million worth of effort building and repairing trails, cleaning up streams, stocking lakes with fish, and performing similar tasks, up 32 percent from 1982. Likewise, BLM reports a 50 percent increase in the value of volunteerism from $1 million to $1.5 million last year.
While still a small part of the overall costs of managing federal lands, the agencies say that these efforts are significant, particularly in a period of pinching budgets. Last year the Forest Service, for instance, spent $99.8 million on maintenance. Volunteers added another $11.8 million of effort in this area.
The new emphasis on voluntarism, while clearly thrifty, is also highly controversial. Although program guidelines generally stipulate that volunteers cannot be used to replace paid workers, there have been charges that permanent positions have been eliminated because they could be replaced by qualified volunteers. And related question has been raised: When does voluntarism become a cover for employing people below minimum wage? The Forest Service, for instance, reimburses some of its ''volunteers'' as much as $15 a day.
Despite these problems, the volunteer programs appear highly popular, particularly among young people and retirees.
Most of the participants are young. Many are university students who can get college credit for their efforts. Others, like Liboff and Meehan, work to increase their chances of landing a permanent job with the agencies involved. But there are also many retired people who enjoy helping out in return for food and a place to park.
Mr. Given tells of a retired couple who spent about 1,000 hours acting as campground hosts at Zion last year. ''They greeted visitors and acted as the eyes and ears of maintenance and protection. They seemed to have a wonderful time,'' he says.