C&O Volunteers: Proud To Serve

As park visitors’ numbers grow, and federal park budget declines, volunteers make up the difference.

Many who volunteer their time and services for the C&O Canal Trust and other organizations reject recent press coverage describing the dissatisfaction of several volunteers who feel slighted by National Park Service staff and made to feel as if their contributions were not important.

The C&O Canal Trust provides more than 1,500 volunteers to the C&O Park. They also raise funds which support the park — the most visited national park in the U.S.

Here is the Canal Trust’s response letter which was sent to volunteers as well as donors:

“We are contacting you today regarding the article about the volunteer programs at the C&O Canal National Historical Park….

“With ongoing federal budget shortfalls, the C&O Canal’s National Park Service staff is under tremendous pressure to provide an increasing number of visitors with the programs and amenities they have come to expect at our national parks. The C&O Canal Trust’s role, with your assistance, is to help relieve that pressure by managing programs on behalf of the park and by recruiting about 1,500 volunteers each year to undertake a range of preservation and maintenance projects.

“While the C&O Canal Trust is the nonprofit partner of the C&O Canal National Historical Park, we independently operate our own volunteer programs and have a dedicated staff person who manages the relationships and safety provisions of our volunteers. The Trust’s volunteer programs have not experienced the negative feedback referenced in the article, but we are taking these concerns seriously and are using them as an opportunity to reflect on our own programs and how we can provide truly beneficial support for the park as well as meaningful experiences for our volunteers.

“As both the C&O Canal Trust and the C&O Canal National Historical Park embark on new five-year strategic plans this year, we will continue to work independently to ensure the Trust’s volunteer programs operate safely and effectively. We will also work with our National Park Service partners to identify new roles the Trust can play to help alleviate burdens placed on park volunteers and staff.

“We are very grateful to you and all who care for the C&O Canal and its five million annual visitors through volunteerism and financial support.”

Canal Trust volunteers such as Jennifer Hearn and Donald Street feel exactly the opposite from the cited volunteers in the newspaper last month. Don and his wife Linda Bergofsky are volunteer quartermasters at the Edwards Ferry lock, outside of Poolesville, and Hearn is a volunteer quartermaster at Lockhouse 6.

Street said, “I found the [newspaper] article to be puzzling based on our own experience. The article was definitely a little unnerving because I don’t know anyone who has had problems with feeling disrespect for our services. I have never had a disagreement with anyone from the National Park Service. They have always been more than helpful and friendly.”

Hearn has been keeping a watchful eye on Lockhouse 6 for years. She makes certain it is always tidy, the entrance code is changed and the special little lockkeeper’s cottage along the C&O Canal is ready for the next Canal Quarter’s renter. The home is just a stone’s throw from her home in Brookmont.

Her pride in her volunteer position is apparent as soon as one meets her. “This home was built in the 1830s and rebuilt in 1848 after a flood. It now has 18 inch walls. It is furnished in with ‘50s furniture in honor of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who saved the Canal from being made into a superhighway. This lock house is truly a treasure – and I’m so happy to share it with visitors,” she said.

Hearn commented that there are more than 1,500 volunteers working with the C&O Canal Trust. “If volunteers are really unhappy, I don’t think they would continue their service to the park. I personally have always felt totally supported by the NPS staff and found them to be most appreciative for my time and efforts. NPS has been delightful in removing trash, taking home items for recycling, mending trails and taking care of this beautiful park. I am personally sad to see such an article. All of us who volunteer were disturbed by the article because it seemed to address the feelings of only a few volunteers and not the entire group. I know many volunteers who love caring for our national park,” she said.

Heidi Glatfelter Schlag, director of marketing and communications for the C&O Trust states that while visitation to the C&O National Park has risen substantially from 4 million in 2010 to almost 5 million in 2017, the National Park Service staff has dropped from 108 in 2010 to 70 in 2018. The NPS budget has dropped from $10.5 million to $9.5 million.

Robin Zanotti, president of the C&O Canal Trust, said, “The NPS is feeling the pain of decreasing resources with increasing park usage. Referenced in the article is the budget. The only way to meet the needs is through the use of our many volunteers who gladly donate their time, talents and energy because they love the park — and being in the park. The Canal Trust manages its own volunteers through training, teaching safety, rules and regulations and how to do their jobs. The NPS could never provide the personnel to do everything in this 184.5 mile park. Thus, they must rely on the volunteers and supervise them as much as they can. Of course there are other volunteers besides Canal Trust volunteers — NPS, C&O Canal Association, Appalachian Trail Conservancy and more. The crux of the problem is the discrepancy between the number of park rangers and the number of volunteers and how to provide supervision for them. However, the only way to manage it is to maintain a line of communication between the various groups. We feel we do this well and when asked, our volunteers state that they feel they can always reach and talk to a park ranger — and that they are courteous and respectful in all ways.”

Many feel that the article was addressing the frustration of volunteers from organizations other than the Canal Trust. One Appalachian Trail Conservancy volunteer said she never felt ignored – in fact she was concerned that she was over-protected by the NPS.

National Park Service Superintendent Kevin Brandt said, "The C&O Canal National Historical Park has a rich history of award-winning volunteer programs that engage as many as 3,400 volunteers annually in the important work of caring for this vast resource. We are at a point where it makes good sense to assess our volunteer structure and the staff resources required to properly manage it, specifically the training and supervision of so many capable volunteers."

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