ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The federal government, mindful of the bottom line, is laying off volunteers.
Let me explain.
Avid hikers who have been hitting trails in the Sandias for years as volunteer “wilderness information specialists” for the Sandia Ranger District are being relieved of their duties as the program is axed.
You might not know them by name, but if you hike in the Sandias, you probably know wilderness information specialists by their green caps and vests. They answer hikers’ questions, remind people to stay on trails and not to smoke. They report downed trees or other problems on the trails. Some of them walk with a plastic bag and pick up any trash they find.
No one on the roster – which totaled 93 at last count – has ever gotten a penny for the work. They have been happy, hiking volunteers. Or they were. Donald Smiset and his wife, Kitsie , have been volunteer wilderness information specialists for years, so Donald was a little surprised when he found out he was losing a job for which he draws no pay.
Sandia District Ranger Cid Morgan told me her district is disbanding the cadre of wilderness information specialists and replacing them with a much smaller group of 10 or so volunteer “trail ambassadors.”
Why? Because the program was too big and disorganized. Because the Forest Service never knew where volunteers were at any time on the 400 miles of designated Sandia trails and didn’t have good records of the volunteers’ interactions with the public.
And because the Forest Service, under federal rules, must consider volunteers unpaid employees and is on the hook for paying workers’ compensation in the event they get injured on a hike. In the past, volunteers have been injured while on duty, Morgan said. As she put it, “Volunteers are not free.”
The changes result from a new nationwide emphasis on safety in the U.S. Forest Service, Morgan said. Because of the mandate to incorporate safety in all aspects of the agency, Washington is requiring that the old volunteer agreements be terminated and that volunteers sign new ones that come with the new restrictions.
Under the slimmed-down trail ambassadors program, volunteers will schedule their hikes in advance with the ranger district’s volunteer coordinator, checking in when they hit the trail and again when they’re back.
“It’s not like I’m going to be the forest Nazi telling people where to hike,” Morgan said. “But we need to know where Joe is so when Joe doesn’t show up we know where to look for him. We need to know where people are because we’re responsible for them.”
Donald Smiset told me he wasn’t complaining about the change, but that he didn’t like the idea of scheduling a hike. He said he and his wife like to wake up in the morning, look at the weather, assess how they’re feeling and choose the trail they think will be the most fun. That’s why they won’t be signing up to be trail ambassadors.
Morgan said she understands that, but there is not enough manpower in the office to keep track of 90 trail volunteers calling in their spur-of-the-moment hiking plans every day and then making sure they check out at the end of the hike.
When the volunteers were told of the changes at a meeting last month, Morgan said the call went out for someone to volunteer to be the person willing to organize the trail ambassador volunteers, which would allow the ranger district to expand their numbers beyond 10.
“Nobody stepped up,” she said.
Morgan said she would love to have more volunteer trail ambassadors, but only if they’re trained, safe and monitored. Trail ambassadors will be required to keep good notes of the number of people they encounter on their hikes and the nature of their encounters with the public and put that information down in reports because that information is required by the United States Forest Service.
If checking in and checking out, scheduling your hikes, keeping records and making reports seems like it takes the fun out of hiking, then being a trail ambassador is probably not for you.
Several dozen of the former wilderness information specialists have remained on board in other volunteer capacities – repairing trails, staffing visitor centers, or leading nature walks. About two dozen have dropped out completely.
The Smisets are still happy hikers and lovers of the Sandias, and they will still walk the same trails and lend a helping hand to hikers in need if they come across them. “We’ll answer questions if people have them,” Donald said, “but we won’t be acting on behalf of the Forest Service. We won’t be wearing the green vest.”
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— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal