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The Importance of Volunteers

Thousands of volunteers, putting in many thousands of hours -- it's a major reason that none of Idaho’s state parks have closed in the past several years. "We are very proud to say we've been able to keep all 30 of our state parks open," Parks director Nancy Merrill told the Legislature's budget committee in 2013. "Much of this is due to our great volunteers." The budget for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation was slashed because of an economic dowturn that affected Idaho and the nation; volunteer hours made a difference. In 2012 alone, volunteers gave state parks 86,000 hours of free work.

Volunteers at Hells Gate State Park
Volunteers at Hells Gate State Park

In May of 2013, the Outdoor Idaho crew visited Hells Gate State Park, as Lewiston volunteers descended upon the park for a scheduled clean-up day.  It was part of a community service project for the local LDS church.  Volunteer organizer Will Godfrey explained what the game plan was. “There are painting projects, gardening projects, and the removal of these berry bushes, which are just fierce,” he told us. “They’ll eat you; they are just fierce.  This park is really a wonderful park for us. Our whole idea is we want to make this community really shine, so this is one of the places we want shiny.  In four hours you can knock out a lot of stuff.”

Without volunteer groups like this one, much of the maintenance work at Hells Gate State Park would never get done in a timely fashion.

“We are the quintessential community park, which is wonderful,” explained park manager Nate Blackburn. “On a day like today we have over 100 people out doing volunteer work to help preserve this park.

Volunteers at Hells Gate State Park
Volunteers at Hells Gate State Park

“The community has fought for us on multiple times, “ he said. “Even back in the 1980’s, there was talk of closing this park because of funding concerns; and the community really rallied to protect us. We have been protected and, hopefully, I think we’re here to stay; I hope so, and we’re doing everything we can to keep this.”

In northern Idaho, when a freak windstorm toppled trees at Priest Lake State Park in July of 2012, instead of leaving, the campers volunteered to help return the park to normal. The fallen trees had destroyed cars and tents.

“I don’t believe the wind lasted maybe a half hour,” said park manager Lonnie Johnson, “but the destruction left was amazing. It was like a bomb just went off.

“We thought campers would be leaving left and right. But we have the best campers in the Idaho Parks Department. They said, ‘we’re here on our vacation. What can we do?’ We had people raking. We had people helping us run chain saws and hauling brush. It was amazing.

“In fact, through all of this, we still had people who informed us that they asked their children, where did they want to have a vacation this year. Was it Disneyland or Priest Lake? And they said, we want to go back to Priest Lake.”

Wind storm at Priest Lake State Park [Photo courtesy Lonnie Johnson]
Wind storm at Priest Lake State Park [Photo courtesy Lonnie Johnson]

 In southern Idaho, a motorcycle gang’s volunteerism was featured in the New York Times: “When the 300 members of Brother Speed rumble up to the expansive lawn at Niagara Springs State Park here each Memorial Day weekend, they are careful where they rest their Harley-Davidsons.  ‘We park on the side,’ said Troy Henne, 39, a member for eight years. ‘We never ride on the grass.’ Until now.  Jarred into public service by the stark economy, the members of the Brother Speed Motorcycle Club have volunteered to dismount and climb into the seats of riding mowers every Wednesday this summer to cut the grass at Niagara Springs.”

On the 2013 Memorial Day weekend, the Outdoor Idaho crew caught up with some of the members of Brother Speed. Todd Sellman is an electrical contractor and a member of the motorcycle group. He was helping to re-wire one of the old houses. "Brother Speed has been coming down to this area for 44 years," Sellman told us. "It's a part of the club. People come from all over the world to this one event we have every Memorial weekend. We want to give back to the park system; they've just been great to us for all those years."

His girl friend, Amy Keller, was also volunteering, by cleaning the insides of some of the old houses at Thousand Springs State Park. "An old house just needs a lot of TLC," Keller said. "It's just nice to walk into a nice old house that's clean and not musty smelling.

"It's a great place to volunteer; it's a little mini vacation while you're doing it because you can enjoy the waterfalls. It's a great way to do a little work and then have a mini retreat."