State parks fear drop in volunteers - East Valley Tribune: News

State parks fear drop in volunteers

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Posted: Sunday, September 21, 2008 8:40 pm | Updated: 11:10 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

SEDONA - Jack Edwards gives visitors to Red Rock State Park a handshake and hello along with a pamphlet on the park’s history.

Louise Appleton leads visitors on moonlight walks.

Those who sneak onto the park grounds after hours will get a lecture from Don Swanson, who stays here overnight in his trailer.

This nature preserve, set beneath the spectacular cliffs overlooking Sedona, has several employees, but these three aren’t among them. All retirees, they are part of a crew of about 80 volunteers who keep the park running.

“I found myself being bored when there was no work to be done,” said Edwards, who has volunteered here every Thursday morning for nearly a year. “Volunteering has filled that gap.”

Arizona’s 31 state parks cannot operate without volunteers, officials say. Hundreds of people, out of the goodness of their hearts and sometimes in exchange for free camping, lead tours and hikes, maintain facilities, staff welcome desks and perform other essential tasks.

Like Edwards, Appleton and Swanson, most of the volunteers in the state parks are retirees.

As temperatures cool and Arizona State Parks readies for an increase in visitors, officials worry that the worsening economy and high gasoline prices will make it more challenging to find volunteers, some of whom drive long distances to parks.

“The cost of gas is definitely starting to prohibit volunteers from driving 30 to 40 minutes out of their way,” said Nicole Armstrong-Best, an Arizona State Parks resource planner who coordinates volunteer efforts.

It’s already tough at Jerome State Historic Park, where ranger Nora Graf needs five more volunteers to join the six who work the front desk, collect entrance fees and run antique engines.

Newspaper advertisements, fliers and events haven’t worked, but officials are working with Armstrong-Best on other options, she said.

“I think part of it is the price of gas along with the long winding road that leads to our park,” Graf said.

Sara Hensley, director of parks and recreation for Phoenix and a faculty associate in Arizona State University’s School of Community Resources & Development, said the poor economy means parks have to be more creative to get volunteers.

“Parks up until now have only targeted volunteers who live right around the area,” Hensley said. “To get more volunteers, parks must begin to target different age groups and different locations.”

Arizona State Parks is working to keep current volunteers and lure new ones by organizing car pools and arranging schedules so volunteers can work the same number of hours each week over fewer days, said Ellen Bilbrey, the agency’s public information officer.

Bilbrey said she and others are soliciting volunteers through news releases, fliers posted at parks and invitations from employees and volunteers.

“We are letting the community know we need them,” Bilbrey said.

Consolidating hours has helped Louise Appleton, who has volunteered at Red Rock State Park for a year, cope with a trip of 19 miles to and from the park.

She used to work part time two days a week, staffing the information booth and leading tours, but now works about the same number of hours on one day a week.

“The prices of gas has impacted me in the sense that I try to consolidate some of my volunteer duties,” Appleton said.

Brenda Robinson, volunteer coordinator for Red Rock State Park, said she’s always on the lookout for people willing to help.

“We have spent a great deal of time reaching out to our community,” Robinson said. “Every individual has a gift to give to Red Rock State Park.”

Riordan Mansion State Historic Park in Flagstaff is reaching out to young people to meet its need for 30 volunteers, said Nikki Lober, the park’s volunteer coordinator.

“We attended this year the NAU volunteer fair to let students know we exist,” Lober said.

Armstrong-Best, who recruits volunteers for the entire park system, said she is ready to adjust her marketing campaign if the economy cuts into volunteer numbers.

“Parks cannot remain open without the help of volunteers,” she said.

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