by Melis Coady
There are nearly 400 National Parks in the United States with approximately 22,000 employees. However, for every park service employee there are ten volunteers. The Volunteer-in-Parks program was authorized in 1969 for the purpose of allowing the public to serve in the nations parks providing support and skills for their enhancement and protection.
Volunteers come from all walks of life and perform varied duties, such as: participating in living history presentations, building fences, and preserving museum artifacts. However, at the south district ranger station of Denali National Park in Talkeetna volunteers have a much tougher assignment. Here their volunteers in the park, called “VIPs”, team up with climbing rangers to perform demanding rescues at high altitude on Denali and patrol remote regions of the park.
“I can confidently say we would not be able to have a program without our VIPs,” states the ranger station’s public information officer Maureen McLaughlin. Last summer the Denali rangers had 45 volunteers contributing over 12 thousand hours of service. The number of volunteers has more than doubled since 2000.
Volunteers have technical mountaineering backgrounds and many have a high level of medical expertise that aids ill and injured climbers. Climbing patrols often have a doctor on staff and several also have personnel from the US Army Mountain Warfare Training Center. Rangers work to build a highly skilled group of professionals to round out their mountaineering patrols and they have a competitive selection process for choosing volunteers. The program is popular and many people return year after year to donate their time. In 2012, seventeen VIPs were returning and many of them have participated in the program upwards of 5-years.
Volunteers come to Denali Park at great personal expense. In addition to taking 2-4 weeks off work, VIPS are responsible for their travel to Alaska, food and lodging before and after patrols, and many pieces of specialized equipment necessary for mountaineering. In the autumn of 2011, Talkeetna resident Jen Latham (Lay-tham) launched Denali Rescue Volunteers a non-profit organization that supports the mountaineering VIP program. The organization is modeled after the successful “Friends of Yosemite Search and Rescue” program at Yosemite National Park.
The mission of Denali Rescue Volunteers is to provide ancillary support to the volunteers of the mountaineering program in Denali. Donations, both financial and ‘in-kind’, are used for travel and equipment stipends, a gear cache, and educational stipends for current volunteers to attend medical and technical trainings.
Donations are administered through an independent board are not used to directly support rescue operations. Costs associated with search and rescue missions are covered through Congressional funding appropriated to the park service.
Last year Denali Rescue Volunteers was busy laying the groundwork to create a more self-sufficient and robust volunteer program at Denali National Park. In addition to expanding their website and creating a Facebook page, Latham, the organization’s director, developed a database of past volunteers and established relationships with mountaineering gear companies.
The North Face, Inc. will be helping support Denali Rescue Volunteers with a new program marketing a ‘Denali Jacket’ online. The classic fleece jacket, first introduced in 1988, was named in honor of Denali National Park. Customers now have the option to completely customize the color and accents of the jackets. The North Face will be donating proceeds from the sales of this specialized jacket to Denali Rescue Volunteers.
Currently, Denali Rescue Volunteers is pending it’s 501(c)3 status. The organization is one of many non-profits in the state frustrated by delays in receiving tax exempt status. Their application is now in a stack of others that are estimated to take up to a year to process. They have enlisted the services of the Tax Advocate Service, an independent organization within the IRS, to facilitate application processing more quickly. Tax exempt status will be important as the organization continues to solicit donations and awaits the release of donations already committed.