Bow Valley locals are quick to volunteer their time for various causes and organizations.
Just ask Tina Barzo, leader of volunteer engagement for Banff National Park. She has about 500 people on a list to which she sends monthly emails detailing the latest volunteer opportunities in the national park.
Lately, those opportunities have been increasing and they’re not just for locals anymore. This past summer, Banff tried out a few new volunteer programs designed to engage both visitors and locals, to great success.
These pilot projects, although open to locals, have their eye firmly on the ‘voluntourism’ market. According to Barzo, someone interested in ‘voluntourism’ is primarily a tourist with the secondary purpose of giving back to the park in some way. It’s a market that Banff National Park, and Canada as a whole, has been slow to recognize, even though the country has so much to offer in this area.
“Canada seems to lag a little in ‘voluntourism’,” Barzo said.
Although most of the pilot projects are not suited to the winter, the “Volunteer and Explore Your Park” kit continues to be offered. Starting last May, people could sign out a kit at the Park Information Centre on Banff Avenue. The kit contained flora and fauna guides, trail condition reports, bags for litter and gloves.
The idea is to go for a hike, ski or snowshoe, take notes on the different wildlife and plant species, human activities and trail conditions, and return the kit to the Information Centre so Parks staff can update their own statistics.
According to Barzo, about 40 kits were signed out between May and December, and the feedback was positive. “For those who did it, it was a great experience,” she said, adding it is a great thing to do for people who can’t commit to a certain project or time frame.
Visitors and locals alike were also encouraged to be a ‘Helping Hand’ between May and August. Each morning at 9 a.m., Tuesdays through Thursdays, volunteers would meet at the Banff Avenue Information Centre to get their assignments.
On ‘Trail Tuesday’, a volunteer might work with staff on trail maintenance or be sent out on a hike to report on trail conditions. ‘Weed Wednesday’ and ‘Thistle Thursday’ is all about clearing out invasive plant species in various areas of the park, or just reporting on where the invasive plants are located.
“It’s the only time you can pick a flower in a national park,” said Barzo. Most of the summer’s Helping Hands volunteers were visitors who wanted to spend a day in the park and do something to give back, she said.
Both the kits and Helping Hands were not heavily promoted, said Barzo, but relied on Parks staff and volunteers to spread the word. With a proven record of success, both volunteer projects will be back in 2011, but with more promotion through posters, website presence and partnerships with local companies and organizations.
Barzo wants to maintain the park’s current trend in 2011 with 700 volunteers and almost 10,000 volunteer hours. “It’s going to be an exciting year,” said Barzo. “This year we want to maintain that and really focus on developing a couple of components, like the ‘voluntourism’ component.”
The next part of that ‘voluntourism’ component is to bring international tourists to the park for the specific purpose of volunteering for four to six weeks. The park is currently finalizing an agreement with an international travel company to market the opportunity around the world.
Participants would become Park Stewards, a hybrid of the existing volunteer roles of Park Ambassador and Citizen Scientists. After a certain amount of training, the Park Stewards would be issued a uniform and dispatched around the park to engage with other visitors and educate them about the area.
Volunteers would also be trained to work with Resource Conservation staff on research and monitoring plant and animal species in the park, as well as some independent work. They would also develop leadership skills by leading some of the other volunteer projects, such as the Helping Hands program.
This program is in its infancy in 2011, with marketing just beginning and logistics still to be finalized. Barzo is still seeking a local partner in the accommodations and transportation field, noting that without a company or organization coming on board to support this initiative, accommodation restrictions might be a barrier to the program’s success.
“Our capacity is somewhat limited this first year of trying to do this, but we’re definitely interested in hearing from companies who would like to partner with us on these things, especially around the accommodation and transportation aspect,” she said.
The national park is also planning to maintain and expand its volunteer opportunities with various groups. Large corporate or social groups are currently able to book volunteer activities such as pulling invasive plants, improving day use areas, picking up litter along the roads and maintaining trails, or suggesting other activities to Barzo.
Bow Valley residents and others who spend some time here are also encouraged to become Park Ambassadors and Citizen Scientists. Annual visitors Phil Roullard and Callie Mack come to Banff National Park for a week every January to cross-country ski and volunteer. Trained as Park Ambassadors, Mack and Roullard spend five or six hours a day on the trails, talking with other trail users and noting trail conditions and wildlife tracks.
Roullard, a California State Parks employee, said volunteering in Banff is all about giving back to the park. “It’s returning the favour of being in this wonderful, beautiful park,” he said. Mack agreed, adding their volunteering has added an extra dimension to the park. “It’s fun to share your enjoyment with other people and show them things they wouldn’t otherwise notice,” she said.
Barzo is holding two information sessions for new and current volunteers to learn more about what opportunities exist and some of the upcoming plans for the overall volunteer programs. The two evening sessions, on Jan. 20 and Feb. 8, will be held at Harkin Hall in the Parks Administration Building in Banff.
For anyone interested in becoming a Park Ambassador or Citizen Scientist, applications are due on Feb. 15. Information on these upcoming sessions or how to apply for specific positions is available at www.pc.gc.ca/banff-volunteer.