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Ex-rangers ride to the rescue of the world's national parks

Retired U.S. National Park Service workers formed Global Parks to share their expertise abroad.

By Mike Ives/ Contributor / June 4, 2010

Rhododendrons, which are exceptionally diverse in this region, cover a hillside in the 770-square-mile Baima Snow Mountain Nature Preserve located in Yunnan province, southeastern China. The preserve was established in 1983. Former US National Park Service employees have worked in this nature preserve.


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Baoshan, China

On Sept. 30, 2009, Anne Castellina fielded an e-mail from Doug Morris, a fellow US National Park Service retiree. Did the former Alaska park superintendent, Mr. Morris wondered, feel like flying to China in November as a volunteer consultant?

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"Sure," Ms. Castellina said.

In October, she drafted a lesson plan about "park interpretation" modeled on consulting she'd done for the US National Park Service (NPS) in Zambia. Five weeks after their initial communiqué, Castellina and Morris arrived in Baoshan, an untouristy Chinese city in western Yunnan Province.

The retired Americans had come to advise senior managers of Yunnan national parks and nature reserves. For two days, they taught park-interpretation skills at an upscale Baoshan hotel. Then they boarded a bus to Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve, a UNESCO-recognized protected area on the border between China and Burma (Myanmar), where they supervised a two-day outdoor training.

Castellina and Morris were the first representatives of Global Parks, a Virginia-based nonprofit that sends retired conservation professionals to protected areas around the world. Launched in January 2009, Global Parks markets its projects as complements to consulting sponsored by the NPS's Office of International Affairs.

Todd Koenings, managing director of Global Parks, says the nonprofit will apply for funding from private and corporate foundations and the federal development agency USAID. Global Parks volunteers, he says, will help protected-area administrators in developing countries build management capacity and promote biodiversity.

"[Presidents] Obama and Bush have emphasized the idea of national service, and we're playing into that," Mr. Koenings said in a phone interview from Virginia. "We're leveraging all these retired people to solve important issues in a way that will have a sustainable impact."

A rising corps of qualified volunteers

His Peace Corps-like messaging may be timely. According to the US Office of Personnel Management, federal employee retirements will hover above 50,000 per year through 2018. Koenings expects future retirements to produce a pool of highly qualified conservation professionals who are eager to volunteer overseas.

The United Nations Environment Program reports that, between 1970 and 2004, worldwide protected-area coverage soared from fewer than 3 million square kilometers (1.16 million square miles) to more than 20 million square kilometers (7.7 million square miles). But many of these protected areas are "ineffective," according to the UNEP report, partly because they lack management plans and trained personnel. Koenings suggests that Global Parks volunteers will respond to that need.