Jack, my fifteen year old son, and I spent a day in July hiking into Rocky Mountain National Park. It is an easy 45-minute drive from our house on the Peak to Peak Highway into one of the side entrances of the Park. But what made the day different for us, was it was a day of public service. We were not going into the Park for a hike amongst the fragrant trees and flowers of high summer in Colorado’s most lush year in my memory. We were going to visit a NGO (non-governmental organization) crew restoring a major trail in the Park.
The entire hike wound up the river carved canyon into the forest and rock of the lower parts of the mountain. While so much of the US endures heat and even drought, along the Front Range we have had rain almost every day for an hour or two. The rivers were still running high from snowpack at historic heights. The same conditions that had flooded the Missouri river basin in the Dakotas had raised the stream to a wild foam out of the Lord of the Rings.
Along with a Park Ranger we arrived on-site high above the river amongst heavy trees growing up the steep canyon’s sides. Only the volunteer crew leaders were in their twenties. The crew itself were all high school kids. But regardless of age, they were all covered in head to toe dirt. They had spent the last 30 days camping in the Park and working on the trail.
And when I say working, I mean digging ditches for drainage, felling trees to support the trail and prevent erosion, finding and hauling gravel and dirt for the trail base, all using hand tools with only an occasional chain saw. They slept in group tents, eating camp food out of bear boxes, then drawing, filtering, drinking, and bathing in the glacier runoff. For 30 days they had learned how to rely on themselves in the wilderness of bears and storms. And in those conditions they had given of themselves to the nation.
We spent an hour eating lunch with the crew listening to stories of pride in the trail built carefully through a rare Alpine wetland up to a towering waterfall. But there were also silly stories of teenagers thrown together and cutoff from the Internet, radio, or any other media. They were alone, but together united around heavy physical labor.
Before we hiked out Jack and I joined in with some other visitors and began restoring some of the neighboring work sites. Hauling tree limbs, stumps, logs, and brush at altitude on moss-covered granite yielded my twisted ankle and plenty of nicks on both of us. We tried to imagine 30 days of minor injuries without access to anything other than a first aid kit. But the kids in their hard hats endured it without comment. No one would want to leave their crew mates behind.
For some reason public service beyond the military is different. Any full time federal or state job emanates the stench of bureaucracy. A politician is considered nothing more than a tool of contributors, be they unions or corporations.
On the opposite extreme of the military is service in purely privately funded NGOs whose work is provided directly to victims of various disasters and ill fortune. But is it admirable for a young American to volunteer their time in the service of the nation without slapping on body armor and ramming home a magazine? For in Rocky Mountain National Park that day it was that partnership between private and public that restored the trail.
While the NGO was in the Park on its own, the National Park Service was providing the opportunity, the supervision, and tools. Or is this type of project next on the list of “discretionary programs” to be axed? It is a perfect example of the stupidity I witnessed from one CEO who blindly cut across the board instead of re-inventing a cost structure.
If you increase NGO presence on federal lands, you can employ a vastly underemployed group of teenagers at slave wages. If the NGO’s can deliver on the projects, you can reduce your costs through re-engineering the way government delivers the National Park experience. And you can retain the unspoiled and unsponsored aspect of the Parks at lower cost.
The alternative on a very micro basis is to imagine the kids back in their home communities under employed and the trail falling into disrepair. As the incredible volume of traffic on the trail continued, erosion would set in destroying the alpine wetland, finally collapsing the trail into the stream. A clouded stream would ruin fishing, impact local tourism, and ultimately the prime driver of Peak to Peak commerce – tourism. Or you could go even further and close the Park in a relentless pursuit of budget cuts for their own sake.
Public service is a small part of the answer to our national financial situation. Volunteers can only solve a part of the problem. But volunteerism is part of a culture that turns away from the easy and pyrrhic vision of across the board cost cutting. To really cut costs you have to master the details of the programs that do not work and eliminate or reform them. Across the board cutting eliminates not only poor programs, but great ones as well. It is the lazy outcome.
And what do the kids who work for food and the opportunity to serve their country earn? They earn self-respect, how to work in a team, and how to survive in the wilderness. And they gain an appreciation that like the servicemen slapping on body armor and slamming home a clip there is more to being American than pursuing your own happiness. From that appreciation of America life and liberty are preserved for the future.