BIG CYPRESS NATIONAL PRESERVE, FLA. — SEVERAL times a week from Thanksgiving until Easter, Bob Rogers, a retired biology teacher and bird watcher from Alpena, Mich., can be found leading nature tours here or slogging through the marsh making wildlife observations to assist resource management rangers. Mr. Rogers is a VIP - as in Volunteers in Parks - a United States National Park Service program coordinating unpaid workers of all ages who devote their time and energies to jobs throughout the national park system.
At the two Big Cypress National Preserve campgrounds, six other retiree VIPs serve as campground hosts. Other VIPs help operate the Visitor Center on the Tamiami Trail.
In the past decade, as the Park Service has experienced extreme financial hardship, superintendents have come to depend on volunteers to keep visitor centers open, clear trails, and perform work that otherwise would not be done.
By law, volunteers are reimbursed only for incidental expenses such as uniforms, supplies, lodging, or meals. Congress is supplying $1 million for the program, and a number of nonprofit and service organizations also contribute funds and workers.
Last year, 67,000 VIPs helped in resource management, gave interpretive talks, and performed office and maintenance tasks - nearly every kind of work except such dangerous activities as law enforcement and search and rescue.
Many VIPs are retirees living in towns near parks, or home-trailer travelers like Rogers, who consider their Park Service duties meaningful vacations.
The Student Conservation Association (SCA) manages volunteer activities primarily for college and high-school students. Last year, more than 120 national park units benefited from the help of 400 college and 260 high-school students through the SCA program.
Rogers and other volunteers bring a wealth of experience to their work. Although some may not have the background or skills to perform tasks or answer questions with the assurance of a trained seasonal or permanent ranger, their enthusiasm and dedication are helping the Park Service weather tough times.