By Andrew Stuart
America’s national parks have never been more popular. Parks visitation hit a record high – with 330 million recreational visits – in 2016, the year of the National Park Service centennial. And while Americans are notably dissatisfied with their federal government, three-quarters hold a favorable opinion of the park service, according to a recent survey. The Smokey Bear hat commands a certain esteem.
Yet the connections people make with parks can be fleeting, and the bonds between parks and the communities that surround them are often less than robust. The Community Volunteer Ambassador program was launched in 2015, as part of the centennial, with a mission to connect people and parks in sustained ways – and to strengthen connections between parks and surrounding communities. In 2019, Guadalupe Mountains National Park hosted one of these community volunteer ambassadors.
Tyler Young is one of 53 community volunteer ambassadors this year.
“The National Park Service has a great reputation,” Young said. “People know about national parks. But they’re really trying to connect people in deeper, more meaningful ways. Volunteering in a park is one way to do that.”
Administered by private nonprofits, the CVA program places recent college and high-school graduates at national park sites.
It’s competitive – the program can open doors to permanent park-service work. Young isn’t sure he’ll pursue a parks career, but he’s shown a commitment to public service. He taught for two years at a tribal school in South Dakota, with Teach For America. And he worked seasonal jobs in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, in his native Ohio; at Voyageurs, in Minnesota; and at Alaska’s Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.
The Guadalupes have an established volunteer program. Volunteers, often retired RV’ers, are campground hosts. Volunteers have helped with trail maintenance. The park’s artist-in-residence program is a link with the broader community.
But Young is forging new bonds.
The military community is a priority. Fort Bliss, in El Paso, is the nation’s second-largest Army installation. Active-duty military and their dependents have free park access, and Young is encouraging Fort Bliss soldiers – as well as the region’s veterans – to spend time in the Guadalupes. That means working with the Fort Bliss newspaper, and visiting the base to speak with soldiers.
Youth outreach is also at the top of the list. Young’s developing a “trail journal,” and an incentive program, to inspire area youth to hike the Guadalupes. He’s seeking to partner with a local 4-H or school group on a pollinator garden at Dog Canyon.
And he’s visiting schools, and leading hikes.
Dell City lies just west of the park. And yet, many young people in the small farming and ranching community have never been.
Young and another ranger visited the school recently, and spoke to students about the park’s geology and history. One student’s response was particularly satisfying, Young said.
“He came up afterwards, and said, ‘How do you work in the park? How do you get a job in the park?’” Young said. “To me, that’s really special, because just about everyone who’s in the park service has that initial story, where they became aware of national parks and connected with them in some way, that set them on that path. It’s kind of like you’re planting those seeds.”
The following day, 40 students – the sixth through 12th grades – traveled across the mountain, for a 5-mile hike in McKittrick Canyon.
At Pratt Cabin, the group stopped for lunch, amid the Ponderosa pines and bigtooth maples.
High-schooler Maxine Burford has lived her life in the shadow of the Guadalupes. But she said the wooded canyon was a complete surprise. And she didn’t mind the hike.
“It was worth it,” Burford said. “I didn’t think it was this beautiful. All we see is one side of the mountain.”
Young said these connections are at the heart of his work as a community volunteer ambassador. Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains national parks draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, from around the country and the world. But the bonds between the parks and the communities that surround them are especially important, he said.
“If I don’t generate any new volunteers, if I just get people to come out to the park and enjoy it, I would still feel good about my work here,” Young said.