As the National Park Service approaches its 2nd century a major goal has been established.  To foster an environment of diversity and relevancy – in all facets relative to those terms.  As a result, all around the nation NPS employees are asking themselves similar questions.  What does diversity and relevancy mean to us?  How can we make sure everyone feels open and welcome to using this resource?  What have we done that’s gone well and what can we do better?  And finally, what do we need to do to make sure our unit is not just relevant today, but for the next hundred years?  As we mull these unbelievably broad topics over, I’m sure some of our answers are very similar and some vary slightly.

Although the AT is focusing on a very broad range of diversity and relevancy issues there is one place at which diversity and relevancy intersect to create an interesting conundrum.  As the NPS looks towards its 100th year and the AT its 80th we’re finding that our volunteer force is aging with us.  The fact is that a large majority of our volunteers – namely trail club members – fall in the age range of 50+ and some clubs estimate their majority demographic as 60+.  A curious development since use of the AT is higher than ever and all ages are well represented in use of the trail.  There are many long time members and leaders looking to retire so they can take their turn to sit back (or should I say get out?) and enjoy what they have worked so hard to preserve.  And they certainly deserve to.

That being said, a younger demographic is not absent in the volunteer community.  It is simply found elsewhere.  So where are these young folks?  They can be found in the category commonly known as episodic volunteers.  Trail clubs mostly consist of members who are looking to regularly contribute to a consistent cause over a long period of time.  A commitment many younger volunteers aren’t willing to make.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.   As someone who consistently found (and often still finds) themselves overloaded with work, extracurricular commitments, and sometimes downright too many options, I identify with the thought process of the episodic volunteer.  When so little of my time is mine, how can I make a long term commitment to something that does not directly influence my day-to-day life?

Although understandable, here is where the problem lies for a system such as the AT.  Created and maintained sheerly out of volunteer efforts, every volunteer is valued – no matter their length or commitment of service.  Certain parts of trail maintenance, however, require specialized work.  As our core of volunteers ages and begins to retire where will we find those with the experience to accomplish specialized tasks?  We certainly can’t assign chainsaw duties to a volunteer without training.  And we certainly can’t spend hours and what limited funding we have training a volunteer for one day of service in those tasks.  Beyond that, this core of volunteers we are starting to see retire holds some of the most longstanding and knowledgeable members of the trail community.  People who have not just spent their time performing maintenance, but taken on leadership roles, innovated trail design, and refined many of the techniques we see today.  Incredible resources of information with no one to pass it on to.

Here is where I find myself sifting through pieces of the puzzle to find an answer.  The puzzle border is my understanding of the AT, our standing trail clubs, and their legacy.  The scattered pieces I have yet to fit are our episodic volunteers.  Right now there are many sketches of what the final picture may look like floating around in my mind.  I’d share some in this post, but I’d run the risk of turning what is supposed to be a blog into a 10 page brainstorm/proposal/essay.  So I’ll just save that for another time.  What I will say is the following:  It is important that we find a way to connect trail clubs to the younger generations.  Trail clubs are not simply sources of volunteers, but organizations that create policies denoting how their section of a trail is to be managed and maintained.  A vital part of the Cooperative Management System governing the AT.  I also think it is important to accept the trend towards episodic volunteering and work with it, not against it.  We need to find a way to use the resources we have in a sustainable way.  See if we can harness the power of episodic volunteering into a source we can rely on.  As I finish another day, I step back from my desk to survey the mess of various papers, policies, and programs scrawled with notes and remind myself that all the pieces of the puzzle are there. All that’s left to do is find where the pieces fit best to create a picture we all can enjoy.  The next generation of volunteers and leaders is out there, they just haven’t seen themselves as part of the bigger picture yet.

Til next time…