A lot of us take our wild spaces for granted. When we need a break to recharge, most of us can take a walk or a hike in a public park nearby. For those of us near large bodies of water, we can hang out with friends by the beach, and when it comes time for a family vacation, a trip to a national or state park is a classic option.
But the reality is that our national public lands need our help. They are under attack from a government that prioritizes business interests over environmental preservation — as seen in the opening of Utah’s Bear Ears to mining companies. Even local governments rarely allocate enough funding to properly maintain state and city parks.
Luckily, you don’t have to sit idly by as these natural places fall apart. Even if you don’t have the money, here are some great ways you can volunteer to help restore the environment on national public lands.
1. Restore habitats at national wildlife refuges.
The challenges facing our wild spaces are endless, from endangered species to water contamination, to climate change. Volunteering is a fantastic way to help the National Wildlife Refuges, part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, take on these issues. As a volunteer, you can help save turtles, remove invasive species, or conduct animal and plant surveys. If working with people is more your thing, you can also help teach elementary schoolers or lead tours.
The National Wildlife Refuge welcomes volunteers of all backgrounds. The more people who can help them in their challenging task of saving the planet’s incredible biodiversity, the better.
2. Clear trails at national forests.
The National Forest Service has always included citizens as a part of its maintenance of the 193-million-plus acres of protected lands. The Forest Service is also chronically underfunded, so volunteers helping out is important. Ways you can do this include clearing trails, helping scientists conduct research, or working in visitors centers. As a volunteer, you won’t get paid for this, but the Forest Service will reimburse any expenses. And if you end up volunteering more than 250 hours on federal lands — from national parks and forests to Bureau of Land Management lands — you can get an Interagency Volunteer Pass, which you can use to bring you and three guests to any of these places for free for one year.
3. Go “plogging.”
Plogging is the perfect way to combine a workout with good work for the planet. The word combines the Swedish word for picking up with “jogging” and involves going for a jog or hike with a trash bag in hand — and maybe rubber gloves, too — cleaning up trash from the natural areas you are out enjoying. You can find plogging groups near you on Facebook.
4. Participate in a local cleanup.
There are guaranteed to be plenty of city park clean-up opportunities where you live. In New York, check the NYC Parks volunteer page; in San Francisco, try the SF Rec & Parks. Denver has its own park volunteer options, and so on. Pretty much every US municipality will make it easy for you to find out about and get involved in sprucing up your local green spaces. If you’re on the coast, there are usually groups that organize beach clean-up events. In San Francisco, the Surfrider Foundation has organized a few beach clean-ups. If you don’t find a park or beach clean-up to join, you can always organize one with friends and family yourself.
4. Volunteer at a national park.
Volunteering at a national park can be more involved, as they are not always close to where you live. But national parks are never short of things to do and ways you can help out. Depending on your interest and skill set, you may even be able to do pretty hands-on stuff like helping band birds, doing land surveys, or studying forest health. If you’re more of a people person, you can volunteer at visitors centers. Many volunteer opportunities require special skills, and longer-term opportunities may require a background check since national parks provide housing to their volunteers.
5. Volunteer virtually.
National, state, and local parks have all been investing in virtual engagement opportunities, and you can help out in the effort. It’s become easier than ever to engage with park services without leaving your home. While there are tons of virtual tours one can join, there are also new volunteer opportunities that are all online. For example, bird watchers can track bird migrations with eBird or count diverse animal species with Zooinverse.
6. Search Volunteer.gov for an opportunity that suits you.
Public lands always need a helping hand, so if you have a special skill that you would like to put to use, check Volunteer.gov to see if there is a volunteer opportunity that speaks to you. You can type in keywords like “public lands” and get really specific on the area that interests you, the type of work, what level, how big a commitment you want to make, and all the details you need to find an opportunity to give back that you will find fulfilling and that will make a real difference for our public lands.