Park-goers lend a hand to public lands
How many volunteers does it take to build a fence?
They might tell you it depends on how passionate those volunteers are about building that fence.
And on Saturday, National Public Lands Day, there was no shortage of motivation as a small band of outdoors lovers helped with renovation projects in Grand Teton National Park.
“It’s never-ending, there’s always trail work,” said Donna Niemi, a veteran volunteer with the park, as she and a dozen others began dismantling a buck and rail fence along the trail to Taggart Lake.
“If we’re hiking and using the trails,” she said, “we feel like we need to take care of the trails.”
After volunteering weekly for the past five years, Niemi knows that care can take many forms. On this day it meant creating a taller, improved barrier between hikers and the park’s horse corrals beside the trail.
“The taking down is gonna be a lot easier than the putting up, I tell you that,” Niemi said, hauling away one of the old logs.
The fence did fall fast, as the volunteers pried out rusted nails and stripped off aging rails. But they hustled on the construction, too, and within a couple of hours a new one sprung up in its stead. Not professional pace, perhaps, but, speed aside, the extra hands are a boon to overburdened park employees.
Angela Timby, the park’s trails volunteer coordinator, organized the event. She walked along the fence rails, a small sledge hammer in hand, surveying the work and directing members of her temporary crew.
She’s glad to have them, if only for the day.
“With the increase in visitation and the limits on our resources,” she said, “it’s extremely valuable to have support from volunteers.”
National Public Lands Day, according to the National Park Service, is the country’s largest single-day environmental volunteer effort. On Saturday, the 25th anniversary of the holiday, it expected 200,000 people to participate nationwide.
At about 100 national parks and 2,600 federal public land sites, volunteers rehabilitated campgrounds, improved trails, restored natural habitat and cleaned beaches.
Even Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke pitched in, painting historic buildings at Grand Canyon National Park. Later in the day he met with legislators to talk about efforts to address the Park Service’s $12-billion maintenance backlog, a slew of overdue projects postponed due to budget constraints.
While they’re sorting that out, Timby said that in the meantime Grand Teton has a solid volunteer base. Some, like Niemi and her husband, Doug, both Sierra Club members, consistently attend Timby’s weekly Thursday sessions as well as National Trail Day in June. Others serve as “ambassadors,” educating visitors about the park’s rules and the importance of protecting wildlife and other resources.
Farther down the trail from the fence project, a second group formed a national-park-style chain gang, each wielding a pickax and pummeling the ground of a reclamation trail. Metallic clinks sounded when the axes struck rock, and small puffs of dust rose with every swing as the volunteers broke up the packed earth.
It’s the first step in restoring that stretch of the path, near the Taggart Lake trailhead. After the “decompaction” the park’s vegetation crew will reseed it with a blend of grass and other native plant species.
“Just imagine how many people walked across this path,” said Terry Devney, a park employee. “Probably a million people. It’s amazing it’s not packed even harder.”
Devney came into “the office” on his day off to help with the project. He spends a lot of time fishing and hiking in the park and feels it’s important that he “pay it forward” to help Grand Teton remain the wonderland he loves into the future.
“I’ve lived here 39 years, raised two kids here,” Devney said. “It’s magical.”
Behind Devney stood Dan Long, director of marketing at Sotheby’s Realty and Timby’s husband. He twirled his ax and explained the importance of these volunteer programs, many of which focus on the parts of the park that see the most use.
“Without that attention they get pretty hammered,” he said. “Getting the public involved goes a long way in these heavily impacted areas.”
Long worries that many people take for granted national parks and other public lands. But having grown up in the Midwest, he’s acutely aware of their importance, especially in light of decreased funding for their caretakers.
“I didn’t have public land anywhere near me,” he said, “and that’s a huge asset that we have here for recreation, for wildlife preservation and conservation.
“I think it’s really important to support the Park Service,” he said. “They’re perpetually trying to do more with less.”
Timby said volunteers are typically surprised to learn the size and scope of the park’s responsibilities, and she enjoys showing them the amount of work that goes into protecting Grand Teton and making it accessible.
After volunteering on a project, she said, they can hike past it and be proud of their contribution.
Though Timby now maintains a national park for pay, doing it pro bono seems to run in the family. Her mother, Laura Timby, who visited this weekend from Arkansas, joined in to help build the new fence. She is a frequent volunteer at Buffalo National River, and it appears her daughter inherited that love for tending public lands.
“When I’m out here,” she said, “to spend more time with Angela and because I’m passionate about it, I volunteer whenever there’s an opportunity.”
Angela Timby glanced over at the crew, raising one segment of fence after another, growing more efficient as the skills they learned in previous projects returned.
“I know everyone is busy and life is full of things,” she said. “But when people are willing to give their time to support the things they love, it’s pretty awesome.”