by Steve Kruger – TKO Executive Director
I am deeply concerned about what is happening to our Oregon State Parks with reductions in operational staff and the possible layoffs of critical support within the agency’s ranks. We are concerned this is a preview of what is going to happen across all public lands. All federal, state and local lands are scrambling to catch up on season staff changes while managing new normals in visitor safety — all in a time of re-opening public lands and the looming realities of shrinking budgets. Oregon’s citizenry can help, if we make it a priority.
[To land managers – Please don’t take this message as a slight on our work together in this critical time. There are a number of examples of you persevering to get volunteers to help you all – we are excited to celebrate that effort soon. This is an acknowledgement of your excellence, the importance of our work together and what you all are struggling to balance.]
Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) aims to support public lands and managers with volunteers. Our partnership helps, even in the best of times, to fill gaps in trail stewardship and advocacy. The historical visitation of outdoor places right now shows that we need more resources to protect and support these special places. In this moment before a busy holiday weekend, I seek to build awareness of what is about to happen in this first summer season since COVID-19 changed the game plan for Oregon’s wild, scenic, natural, cultural and historic sites.
Before joining TKO to lead this organization for the last 3 years, I spent 10 years with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) as a ranger and manager. When I began with OPRD, times were looking great. I was part of a new wave of park staff who came in after the department switched from a general funded agency to being funded from Oregon Lottery and visitation fees. In those days, OPRD was acquiring new lands and building new parks across the state – 10 parks in 10 years, the first since the early seventies.
That all quickly turned to a struggle during the economic downturn in 2008, as we witnessed budget shortfalls for park enhancements and basic operational challenges from reduced staffing, hiring freezes and furloughs. What also suffers in times like this is the morale of our loyal and hardworking field staff. The pride these folks have in wearing the State Parks shield – and what I gather from all public servants – is further demonstrated through the strong heartstrings that stretch them to trying every which way to keep all the work going. Meanwhile, no matter the economic challenges, outdoor recreation continues an upward trend.
The effects of the upcoming cuts will be hard to witness from the general public’s perspective, but painful as a partner organization. Agency staff will be forced to switch into emergency mode to protect staff and visitors; meanwhile, the natural spaces and trails will suffer. Staff just won’t have time to manage these things. Partners like TKO are offering to help, but unfortunately staff will be too busy with re-opening to also manage the safety of volunteers. Still some staff are working with TKO on how we can help — work that is much appreciated and will benefit everyone in the long term. As we hit Memorial Day weekend, I fear we may lose ground as trail/volunteer work is lost in the congestion of the summer season.
These dedicated staff won’t go anywhere. They won’t quit. They’ll put up the facade of perfection, keeping that front lawn of the visitor centers looking great and slapping fresh paint over buildings. Infrastructure, meanwhile, will be held together by baling wire and the heart & soul of these wonderful staff that love these places like a family member. The challenge for them is that they’ll be asked to do so much more, like covering the duties of a minimized seasonal crew and the positions left vacant for 6-12 months. While they stick to the basics of clean facilities and park rule enforcement, what may be lost is partnerships with organizations like TKO. Staff won’t have time for us, and will be told to say no to our help. Our dedicated volunteers will get frustrated and find something else to give back to.
Tough times like this have hit state parks before. Following the golden era of Oregon State Parks being developed in the 1950s and 60s, the 1970s saw resources starting to dry up. Then known as the Oregon State Parks Division, staff rallied together and established initiatives like the park host program which has been a significant resource to help fill gaps in everything across campgrounds and maintenance operations. I was fortunate to experience the park host program and work with these amazing volunteers throughout my tenure.
What if we can seize the moment like they did, creating decades of service to public lands in the future? Partners like TKO can grow into a significant volunteer program for OPRD and other land managers, becoming key stewardship partners for natural areas and trails. We can help ensure high standards in volunteer leadership and stewardship, engaging Oregon’s citizenry in protecting our parks during, and well after, this pandemic.
So what do we do? How do we care for these precious places? We all need to recognize this moment and not let it pass us by. We Oregonians love our parks and forests, and we can do this together. Rally around our leaders, support the nonprofit organizations that are ready to help, and be willing to pick up a shovel and dig in!
If you’re going out to the woods this weekend?
Take Care Out There: plan ahead, prepare for a different experience and protect yourself while out there.
If you want to protect our public lands, give back?
Donate to TKO and other nonprofit partners that offer ways for volunteers to support public lands.
If you want to get involved and volunteer?
Tune in to the many new ways TKO is building awareness and training Oregon’s citizenry – connect on social media and check out our events page for new opportunities coming to you through digital engagements.
Keep close, while we are all apart,
TKO Executive Director