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Opportunity is Often Disguised as Work: Zion’s Volunteer Voyage 2019

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Sofia and Zion’s 2nd Annual Volunteer Voyage participants pose after four hours of strenuous labor breaking ground to revegetate the shuttle stop. 

Dec. 6, 2019 | “Opportunity is often missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work. This, this was an opportunity. Thank you.”

This phrase was uttered by one of the ten volunteer participants in at the end of Zion’s Second Annual Volunteer Voyage. Ten former strangers sat around a picnic table sharing their favorite memories of the past week in the soft autumn light as golden cottonwood leaves fell around us. As the reality of their parting settled in, the volunteers’ voices caught:

 “I love all the jokes we created together.”

“Thanks for teaching me how to camp.”

“I loved hiking with you all.”

 “It was so cool to meet people from all over the country that all have the same values as me.”

I recruited these ten volunteers from all over the country: Utah, California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Missouri, New Jersey, and New York. Besides a married couple, no one knew each other before meeting in Zion seven days before.

 I advertised the week-long service experience—Volunteer Voyage—in exchange for a free week of camping in Zion via our social media accounts. Reviewing applications, I felt touched by the passion of people willing to travel, sometimes thousands of miles, to volunteer a week’s worth of free labor to support their National Park. Many of the selected volunteers had explored Zion many times—one had even gotten married here—and felt a strong need to give back to a park that had been so formative in their lives.

The volunteers arrived on a Sunday to their group campsite. They spent Sunday and Monday exploring the park on their own. One group rented dry suits to hike in the Narrows, while another group conquered the infamous Angel’s Landing chains, 1000 foot drop, and all. When I arrived Tuesday morning, I could tell they’d already started to bond through shared adventures. These connections strengthened even more during the following five days of service.

On Tuesday, we spent the whole day with Zion’s Native Plants Vegetation staff, planting native grasses, cacti, juniper trees, and flowering plants around the newly rebuilt (and barren) Visitor Center shuttle stop. The volunteers labored to dig holes in the compacted and rock-filled ground. Using teamwork and sometimes sledgehammers, they planted many dozens of plants over the course of four hours. The revegetation work they completed saved the Vegetation staff weeks of labor and will be enjoyed by visitors and animals for decades to come.

Wednesday, we worked with the Maintenance Division trimming overgrown vegetation that was blocking campsite markers and campground paths, while picking up litter around the Watchman campground. Thanks to Volunteer Voyage, fewer campers will wander, lost and confused, attempting to locate their campsite; the markers, now free of vegetation growth, display the site numbers clearly.

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Volunteers shovel and sweep sand off the Riverside Walk to make it wheelchair accessible.

Thursday, we spent four hours sweeping and shoveling sand off of the Riverside Walk in order to make it wheelchair accessible. After a summer season of high traffic, several inches of sand covered the paved path, making it nearly impossible for wheelchair travel. The volunteers’ hard work also eliminated tripping and slipping hazards for the hundred thousands of people who travel this path in a year.

Friday morning, volunteers cleaned and polished the bulletin boards around the park, making important information visible to visitors. They spent the afternoon completing trail counts, while hiking on trails throughout the park to gather data for our Visitor Use Management Plan. Trail counts allow us to study patterns of visitor trail use. As the fourth busiest National Park in the United States, Zion has been gathering data over the past couple years in order to develop a management plan that will minimize resource damage and visitor injuries, while simultaneously increasing visitor enjoyment by reducing crowds and lines.

Saturday, we cleaned up litter around the Visitor Center parking lot and the South Campground. Litter and micro-trash present a constant problem in high-use areas in Zion, like the Visitor Center and campgrounds. After I explained the damage even micro-trash can do to all animals, especially the endangered California condor, the volunteers attacked litter with zeal. By picking up micro-trash, they helped ensure that Zion’s newly fledged Condor chick (1K) will reach adulthood without incident.

This group worked hard, I know because I swung sledgehammers and pushed brooms alongside them the whole time, feeling the soreness in my body. Regardless, every morning these volunteers continued to revel in this opportunity, expressing just as much gratitude for this experience as we expressed for their help. This week of volunteer work was truly an opportunity for all of us.  The volunteers experienced a trip they won’t soon forget, and most importantly, Zion National Park gained many lifelong advocates, like this volunteer:

“I’ve come to Zion many times before, but now, after seeing the inner workings of the park, I feel like I have a personal stake in it.”

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Volunteer Voyage participants unite to protect Zion from micro-trash and any other threats that may come its way!