More than 24,000 volunteers helped preserve RMNP’s natural landscape last year. Find out how you can join the fun.
By Dylan Owens
Exploring the grandeur of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP)—or any walk in the woods for that matter--is good for the mind, body and soul. When you combine it with giving back as a volunteer? Well, that’s a wellness program that can’t be beat. A recent study by VolunteerMatch and UnitedHealthcare found that volunteering regularly makes you feel healthier and happier; 93 percent of recent volunteers surveys reported an improved mood; 79 percent reported less stress; 88 percent reported a self-esteem boost from service-related activities.
Enter voluntourism, a marriage of outdoor adventure and volunteering that lets you experience the best of RMNP while simultaneously helping preserve it.
Voluntourism is a way of infusing a day in the Park with purpose — and meeting some like-minded folks while you’re at it. Bonus: Your efforts grant free entry for the day of your volunteer shift. And that’s not all you’ll get, according to Geoff Elliot, director of conservation at the Estes Park-based Rocky Mountain Conservancy, the nonprofit partner of RMNP. He says that people come to give something back, but end up taking just as much away in newfound understanding and appreciation of the landscape.
“A lot of people come to volunteer in parks because they enjoy them, and then they realize it’s not just about the enjoyment of these places,” said Elliot, who leads many of the conservancy’s volunteer projects. “These parks have given us as Americans so much over time. It’s a huge part of our culture and history, this idea of protecting these open spaces for the sake of the spaces themselves.”
The mission of the Rocky Mountain Conservancy is to instill that feeling of stewardship in visitors. To that end, it organizes educational programs and philanthropic activities — like its volunteer program — around the park.
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In 2017, the RMNP attracted some 4.4 million visitors, making it the fourth most visited national park in the country. “Our National Parks are being loved to death,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in a statement earlier this year, citing a trend of increased attendance and a laundry list of deferred maintenance.
The volunteer program — the largest of any park in the intermountain region that stretches from Texas to Montana — is pivotal to supporting the park. Last year alone, RMNP hosted more than 2,400 volunteers, who contributed a total of about 115,000 hours of service. That equates to more than 50 full-time employees. “We would not be able to protect these lands without the volunteers,” Elliot said.
Once in the park, a volunteer's shift (usually between two and five hours) will focus on one of four categories: Trail projects, habitat restoration, fire-fuel management and litter clean up.
That last one might not sound as glamorous as the others, but Elliot stressed its importance. Consider that on last year’s Colorado Public Lands Day — one of the marquee volunteer events — a group of volunteers collected more than 300 pounds of litter in just two hours. “We don’t hike these trails to be able to see garbage over the roadways,” he said.
This year, Colorado Public Lands Day kicks off Rocky Mountain Conservancy's summer volunteer calendar on May 19 with a two-hour litter clean up. (If you can’t make that one, there’s another on Sept. 22.) If you’re looking to cover a bit more ground, Elliot recommends coming for National Trails Day (June 2). At five hours, it’s a longer haul, but the day’s mission — restoring the flood-damaged Aspen Brook Trail near Lily Lake — is a worthy one.
So consider showing Rocky Mountain National Park a little extra love this summer (and beyond) – the benefits go both ways. You’ll feel mentally and physically invigorated and you’ll have done your part to help preserve this magnificent resource, and make it better than ever. It’s not a chore, it’s a gift.
For a full schedule for this year’s volunteer opportunities, go to: rmconservancy.org/donate/support-work/volunteer..
Dylan Owens is a Denver-based writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone and The Denver Post, where he was the music editor for nearly three years. A former baby model, he peaked early, but is clawing his way back into magazines one word at a time. Find him at dylanowens.com