Can RVers save our parks and campgrounds?

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April 2, 2010

By Bob Difley

volunteeringWhile I’m on the subject of senior discounts, camp hosting, and volunteering (last Saturday’s blog, Do seniors deserve public lands campground discounts?), why not re-think the whole idea of volunteering. No matter which side of the political spectrum’s talking heads you may choose to believe, the reality is that the economy and jobs are going to take a while to recover to where we remember. What that means is that much of the work of public agencies that is defined as “non-essential” will not get done because personnel will be too busy working on “essential” work–however that is defined.

However, we RVers will quickly notice that this “n0n-essential” stuff includes keeping parks open, maintaining campgrounds, clearing trails, picking up litter, assisting campers, and being available to answer questions.  The forest service, BLM,  fish and wildlife agencies, Corps of Engineers, and our National Parks are all understaffed and could use some help.

So here we are, RVers who, like turtles that carry our self-contained homes around with us, can live comfortably just about anywhere, and require little in the way of support services.  We have time on our hands, possess myriad talents and skills from a lifetime of work, have reached a time in our lives where we want to do something meaningful, be useful, give back to the community, try new things–and we can offer this wealth of talents and skills at a cost of practically nil, nada, nothing. Just a campsite.

There must be some astute politicians, upper-level supervisors, aware people in power, that recognize this vast wealth available to them. And what do we ask other than a place to park our home? Treat us as partners, associates, advisers, sounding boards. We have a lot to offer if you consider us more than minimum wage employees. But don’t expect us to want to work full time. In fact, I think 20 hours per week is more than enough. And support us with what counts, with the skills from people you need to pay, like responsive back-up in emergencies, medical problems, law enforcement, heavy maintenance. Look at all you get for little to nothing having to be taken out of the operating budget.

Give us interesting work to do,  a degree of autonomy, some decision making–you might find out how good we are and how dedicated we can be. Think of how much better this country could run while we claw our way up out of the recession pit doing the work that diminished budgets don’t provide for. Think of what thousands of volunteer retirees and retiring baby-boomers could accomplish.

When you have a minute, check out my boondocking  eBook, BOONDOCKING: Finding the Perfect Campsite on America’s Public Lands, and my newest eBook, 111Ways to Get the Biggest Bang for Your RV Lifestyle Buck.

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  5. Sue Bomers

    We are presently volunteering at a State Park in Oregon and it is our third time at this park. It is a wonderful experience and each time we sign up, we are given a different job. We meet wonderful people—both campers and other volunteers—and our rangers do not let a day go by without telling us how they appreciate what we do and that the park looks wonderful because of all the volunteers. Do not hesitate to give this lifestyle a “try”—your committment can be no more than 30 days and your choices of location are unending. Give it a try!!!

  6. I say it all the time, that we are going to have to take over the caring of the parks, preciously for the reasons you have stated, namely, that with a properly equipped rig, we are self-sufficient to the point that we have the equivalent of a mobile town when we congregate. We really don’t need any other facilities, and that’s a good thing. At this point we can get rid of all the concessionaires, the toilets, and the rest.

    Besides that, private land ownersthip is a myth that is crumbling, including government owned land, as bureaucracy attempts to take care of the patchwork of “public” land that is left. You cannot mandate behavior from people who have no vested interest in a place, like fulltimers who view everyplace as their home.

    Hopefully soon, we will be able to move out into the land fulltime, whether that be by “volunteering” some time, a cheap universal camping pass, or other device and really enhance it to the point where it takes care of us in return, but that’s going to take a group vision and group effort.

    Nobody wants to work a specialty job cleaning up trash or restrooms or anything else that is routine and boring to the soul. Fulltiming will once again come to resemble the life of the Native American, varied and rich, albeit with modern tepees, and modern conveniences.

  7. Excellent comments, ideas, and suggestions. I used to believe that our tax dollars covered “recreation for the people” but it has become evident that that notion is naive and wishful thinking. What we may want and what we think we deserve is now quite different from reality. And reality dictates that we are going to have to pitch in–volunteer–if we want parks and public lands campgrounds to remain open, clean, maintained, and reasonably priced.

  8. I think that this is a hot topic right now and this post presents some very good ideas as a solution to the problem. Thanks for the input.

  9. Joe


    I think you’re sentiment is a common one, but we’re not really taking about just using public lands. We’re talking about facilities that require money to keep running and work to keep maintained.

    Even a small campground has bathrooms with plumbing and septic, running water at various spots, lights, some kind of road (paved or gravel) that needs upkeep, signs, paths to be trimmed, fire pits to be cleaned, and so on….

    Think about what it costs to pave a campground loop. In a RV area, that paved loop sees a lot of heavy vehicles. Maybe it lasts 15 years? You have to recoup 1/15th of the cost each year in order to repave when it needs it (actually more, inflation).

    The choices are (a) the people who use the facilities pay for the upkeep or (b) some guy who lives in urban Chicago is taxed and his money pays for it. Someone is going to pay either way.

  10. Ron Topp

    Why pay taxes –if we are going to “volunteer” and do the upkeep ourselves —after paying taxes all these years before –now “we” are at the age were we should be able to enjoy all the fruits of our paying taxes –IE. if you worked and payed into SS for 30-40 years and payed your taxes there should be NO FEE for usage of Groverment lands–seems to be thats the way it was before but has been changed by Politations who just want more of our income inorder to better themselves–
    Am I the only one who thinks about it this way??

  11. Geoffrey Pruett

    Perhaps you could start a registry of needed jobs. Have already signed up to help with volunteer work in repairs to homes in the city which would not be done for hire. Many of us who are retired are not far out of that catagory today but since I am still active and have tools why not.
    A lot of the projects like swimming holes and small parks were started over coffee either at a local resturant or after church services, then in the 50’s “George”, the government, took over many of these things and tangled them in red tape as only governments can do. Don’t look too hard but “George” is no longer able to pay for basics, good luck on the extras.
    The sad part is things are never static, when they are not improving they are deteriorating. Look around your own area, is it building or crumbling? We lived in fortunate times for our country, perhaps it is time to pay it forward!
    Geoffrey Pruett

  12. Joe

    To bring some of Bob’s ideas back around the topic of senior discounts –

    Where I live, a lot of the parks (city, county, state, some fed I think) have extensive trail networks that have been built and maintained by volunteers from local clubs. In return for your work on the trails, you can earn a discount card that gets free admission at a couple of parks that charge admission during the peak season.

    I wonder how Seniors would react to a widely accepted discount card that is a reward for the kind of contributions that help parks and campgrounds. It could be open to anyone, but Seniors are most likely to take advantage since they have the time and interest to workamp for a few weeks each year as a way to get the discounts.

  13. vet66

    I recall recently some union guys back east balked at ALLOWING a Boy Scout troop to do volunteer work of the type being discussed. Allthough the abusrdity of their position finally resulted in troop being allowed to perform public service the SEIU and IBEW might not be as civic minded as the rest of us. At the least we should each “police” our campsight and surrounding area if possible during our stay.

    Many of us were taught in our youth to leave your area clean and clear of our visit. By leaving a dirty campsight in the mistaken belief that we are creating/maintaining employment is absurd. If the job in question was created in the first place it was because a small minority of campers didn’t respect the environment they were visiting. In any case, the last thing we campers and RV enthusiasts should do is walk around the area to make certain we didn’t leave anything that should properly be stowed or thrown in the trash.

  14. Beverly Smith

    I will also add, Volunteers represent Millions of hours of work across the US. It sounds like this is an area that those of you who have not volunteered do not realize. Most of the parks we have volunteered in could not stay open without us, We were just at a Volunteer Appreciation Dinner in FL where there were over 300 of us and that was for just 1 devision of the park system in FL.

  15. Beverly Smith

    I and my best friend are retired and have Volunteered as Camp Hosts for State Parks for 5 years. We have done every thing from Drive tram/collect fees/run a boathouse/clean bathrooms/clean campsites/teach crafts to kids in museums & Nature centers, & many things in between. Our stays have been anywhere from 2 months to 5 months, always our choice. We have volunteered in parks from WA to NY & S to FL & 13 states in between.. The people we have met, the things we have learned and the experiences we’ve had have been invaluable. The parks have all treated us as valued workers and we have never been taken advantage of or over worked. This is the best life style I can think of.
    We are always booked 12-18 months out. It takes a bit of research, but it is not difficult to go to State Park/Corps of Engineer/Dept of Forestry etc sites just click on Volunteers. You will be glad you did. And there is always WorkKampers, if you need a bit of cash too.

  16. This is the most litigious nation on earth and it will be the death of our great country. Everyone is looking for someone to blame, someone to sue, instead of rolling up their sleeves and getting the job done. From the ol’ swimming hole to the sledding hill, all gone because of the lawyers. Bob, your ideas are great and I sincerly hope they find their way to someone who can make them happy. In the meantime, I’m still picking up trash around the campground, leaving areas cleaner than when I found them and hoping I don’t get sued by a sanitation worker for doing his work. Keep up the good work!

  17. Barb Moak

    I want to volunteer but I don’t want to sign on for a May or April to October gig. I’d gladly give 4 to 6 weeks and then move on to another area. I’m looking for that in the mid west this summer. I represent an early retired, expericenced host couple, with maintaince, and office experience, in good health with vitality. We’re from Phoenix so weI want to stay gone all summer, but not all summer in the same place. I think there more like us out there also.

  18. Scott Fosnight

    I think it would be a great idea, but what I’ve seen from the government makes me think it’s not possible. Liability issues were raised and I have seen that problem first hand. A local man and a friend were clearing a trail and were accused of starting a major fire here in our community. They deny having anything to do with the fire and have done this community service in the past without any problems. It certainly has turned their lives upside down.

    On the other hand, when we camped with other families as kids. Our parents would have trash picking up contests with prizes for the most trash picked up. Yes, simpler times but a lot of fun for little kids and great memories.

  19. Sue Tsuda

    Having worked in government at the local level as volunteer, staff person and elected official for about 50 years, Bill has it wrong. Most volunteers in local government and education are covered by workers compensation at no cost to themselves. If you get hurt on the job, you are covered. Most regulations are reasonable and intended to keep you and the public safe. Most ‘fixzits” don’t require a permit unless you are putting on a roof, installing a new water heater, etc. Besides, wouldn’t you like to have your work inspected to make sure it is done correctly and is not going to come back to harm you or someone else?
    Volunteers are always welcome and many work with police, fire, disaster preparedness, Red Cross, local parks and recreation, county and state and national parks, etc. Special skills are an asset, but not a requirement. If you are able bodied and of sound mind – there is a job for YOU!

  20. Sorry to say that OUR government cant allow US to do the work. What if we got injured, who would be responsible? Maybe we would do something against the “policy”. Just Try to get a permit to fix something. We have created such a Protected world we can’t work together to save ourselves, it might affend someone. Sorry for the down beat attitude but dealing with government regulations for a living does not allow me to dream thoughts like fixing simple things that are broken. Keep Dreaming. I am not be ing political only practical.

  21. Ron Butler

    Far too logical to be implemented!! I’m not the mechanical or electrical type, so we have shied away from those kinds of expectations. Also, don’t expect us to be the enforcers. Let us set up educational programs and activities for the kids if we have those skills.

    Hopefully, there will be someone from the parks departments will read your comments and the light will come on for them!!

  22. Don & Irene Ritchey

    You are going to get swamped with responses I think its a great idea we all pitch in its just how do we know what to do and where. Most of us do tidy up around our camping spots but there is so much more we could do if given the green light rather than wondering “would anybody mind” if I did thisor that.
    we live in Northern British Columbia Canada and are so fortunate our campgrounds are adequatly funded but when we travel elsewhere you see exactly what you are talking about. Don & Irene Ritchey

  23. Pat


    Exactly my line of thinking! Thanks for the reminder! It takes a village, county, state/province, nation and the world to help everyone get through these times, and beyond. When we blame the ‘government’ for all the ills or expect the ‘government’ to do it all, we are forgetting Civic Lesson #1: WE ARE the government!