8 ways to volunteer & help wildlands on Earth Day

A volunteer (right) speaks with a visitor at Mt. Rainier National Park (Washington).

Credit: Jasmine Horn (NPS), flickr.

What could be a better way to celebrate Earth Day than finding volunteer opportunities to help out our hard-working public lands?

Public wildlands give us so much. They provide places for recreation and solitude, clean air and water—even potent symbols for our national identity. If you're looking to give back to these lands, take a look at our list below. It's full of places that offer volunteering opportunities throughout the year.

Roll up your sleeves and dig in!

1. National parks

Especially in the year of the National Park Service centennial, it is well worth your energy to give back to some of the famed wildlands that help define America (and spend some time enjoying them in-person, while you’re at it). Volunteer opportunities range from picking up litter in California’s Saguaro National Park (April 16) to patrolling Point Reyes National Seashore to help guide visitors (regular openings through the end of 2016) to demonstrating musket use at a historic battlefield (at Pennsylvania’s Fort Necessity unit, June 5 through August 20). There is something for everyone.

In honor of its 100th anniversary, the National Park Service is even offering a Centennial Volunteer Challenge Coin for those who put in 201.6 hours of volunteer service in 2016. So what are you waiting for? Find a volunteer opportunity near you.

2. National wildlife refuges

The National Wildlife Refuge System has more than 560 units, protecting (and in some cases restoring) about 150 million acres as habitat for thousands of species, many threatened or endangered. Volunteer opportunities are just as varied as the refuges’ inhabitants: according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, almost 42,000 people spend free time helping out at refuges, and while special skills are not usually required, opportunities at any given refuge may range from combating invasive plants to helping take wildlife population surveys.

Volunteers count albatrosses at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (Hawaii). Photo: Dan Clark (USFWS), flickr.

If you do an especially good job at the refuges, you may even become a star. Longtime bird-counters, spring-restorers and others have been recognized by the Service. Learn more about how you can help.

3. National forests

America’s National Forest System contains one of the largest networks of trails in the world and draws roughly 165 million visitors every year. But many of these trails are not in great shape due to a long maintenance backlog caused by chronic underfunding. This means that many people can’t access the trails—and the trails they can access are not always safe.

Fortunately, you can help address this ongoing problem. Many National Forest Service units are in need of volunteers to clear debris from trails, clear water bars—special channels cut into trails to help divert rainwater and reduce erosion—replace signs or complete other tasks to make these areas safer and more visitor-friendly. If that’s not your forte, national forests need volunteers to give campground directions, use a GPS unit to log hiking routes—even act as “wilderness stewards.”

As a bonus, volunteers who help the National Forest Service for at least 250 hours are eligible to receive an Interagency Volunteer Pass, which grants the holder free entry to most national public lands for a full year. Learn more about how to help national forests.

4. Bureau of Land Management lands

Not as well known as our national parks, landscapes managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are spectacular nonetheless—iconic places that safeguard tremendous scenery, wildlife habitat and archaeological resources. And like other American public lands and the agencies that manage them, they are chronically underfunded and welcome all the volunteer help they can get.

A Bureau of Land Management volunteer project in 2012. Credit: BLM, flickr.

BLM volunteer opportunities include everything from front desk positions to picking up trash at campgrounds. You can even volunteer just by enjoying outdoor recreation—Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area needs a trail monitor to hike a scenic stretch of the Mojave Desert.

As with most other national public lands systems, volunteering for 250 or more hours on BLM lands will get you a special volunteer pass that offers free entry to various protected wildlands for a full year. The BLM also offers a guide to volunteering for the agency [PDF]. Find out where you can help.

5.  National volunteering websites

Maybe you’re not exactly sure which federal agency or public lands system you’d like to volunteer for. That’s okay—sites like serve.gov and volunteer.gov allow people to search for all sorts of opportunities near them, sorted by various criteria. Fancy a position in Michigan that’s related to museum administration? You’re in luck—Isle Royale National Park’s Cultural Resources Program needs someone to help maintain its museum collection, and Keweenaw National Historical Park needs someone to help catalog photos and artifacts.

6. State park and regional organizations

It isn’t only big, nationally recognized landscapes that need volunteers. State parks near you want people to maintain trails, assist visitors and help preserve archaeological sites, from Arizona to North Carolina to Virginia.

Volunteer clean-up at Virginia's York River State Park. Credit: Virginia State Parks, flickr.

Additionally, non-profit groups like Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado focus on supporting the lands in their state by helping to motivate volunteers and find them the best opportunities. One project near and dear to our hearts: Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, originally established as a division of The Wilderness Society, works to protect lands in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia.

7. Local “friends groups”

Many beloved parks have at least one associated “friends group”—an organization of concerned people not necessarily connected with the park in any official capacity who nonetheless meet regularly to raise awareness and improve conditions in these special places. These groups range from Assateague Coastal Trust, which advocates for the protection of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia coastal areas, to the Trail of Tears Association, which was created to advocate for the formation and preservation of the Trail of Tears National Historic TrailSee a directory of various national park units’ “friends groups.”

8. Outdoor recreation groups

Whether it's hiking, biking or fishing, recreation builds community—and recreation groups often lead the rest of the community in caring for the places we all love. The focal points and activities of these groups vary widely: The 140-year-old Appalachian Mountain Club aims to connect more people with the outdoors, and also helps them find trail stewardship opportunities; Outdoors for All helps volunteers work one-on-one participating in outdoor recreation with people with disabilities.

Of course, Earth Day isn't the only day to help the land, but it's a great day to get started!

National Public Lands Day, in September, is also a great day to learn about and take advantage of service opportunities. Learn more.