Volunteer Voices: "Did I Mention I Like Pie?"
Volunteer Voices: "Did I Mention I Like Pie?"
Mark Marschall joined our team in 2018 to take on the role of volunteer program manager. Though new to the Conservancy, Mark has been working (and volunteering) in national parks for years. He started out in the mid-1970s as a volunteer intern in Yellowstone, where he later worked as a ranger-naturalist, snowmobile ranger, boat ranger, backcountry ranger and resource management specialist. He also served as chief ranger in Virgin Islands National Park, and as a wilderness patrol supervisor, district ranger and wilderness manager in Yosemite.
Throughout his career, Mark has had plenty of opportunities to work with volunteers on public lands. As he dives into his first year at the helm of our volunteer program, we picked his brain about the importance of donating time, his memorable Yosemite moments, and what he’s looking forward to about his new role.
What are your most memorable volunteer experiences?
I have two that are particularly memorable, my first and my most recent.
My first experience with the National Park Service was as a volunteer intern in Yellowstone in 1976. As part of my duties, I staffed a visitor center desk and led guided programs. The first time I put on my official volunteer shirt, I thought I would burst with pride — and also thought it instantly increased my park knowledge and coolness index. Luckily, the veteran NPS naturalists gently reminded me that it was okay to say “I don’t know” (they offered that advice after graciously correcting one of my best-guess answers to a visitor’s question). Seeing the effect that these knowledgeable, dedicated and fun people could have on a visitor’s experience hooked me on a career in national parks.
Almost four decades later, in January 2014, I volunteered to join a three-person team in Chile helping rangers in Torres del Paine National Park develop a management plan for their increasingly popular backcountry trails and camping areas. It will be no surprise to any volunteers when I say that I got back as much as I gave on that trip. Besides enjoying world-class scenery and gracious hospitality, I gained valuable insights about managing protected lands.
Both experiences taught me about two critical factors that go into a successful volunteer experience. First, the hosts — in my case, the rangers at Yellowstone and Torres del Paine — have to care about their volunteers. My hosts provided ample guidance, training and logistical support, and then demonstrated appreciation for my donated time and effort. And I, as the volunteer, had to be open to new experiences, willing to work around unforeseen glitches, and ready to appreciate the opportunity to play a part in the parks.
What are you looking forward to about working with our volunteer program?
I’m looking forward to the field season. Fall and winter planning, recruitment, and logistics are vital to a smooth season, but summer is when our volunteers get to flex their physical and mental muscles to protect park resources and improve visitor experiences. I’m especially excited to collaborate with and learn from returning volunteers, team leaders and staff.
I’m also looking forward to working with our new volunteers as they transform their relationship with the park and realize the difference they can make. Volunteers in Yosemite and other parks inevitably deepen their understanding of and connection with the place. It’s fun and inspiring to witness that process.
How will your NPS background help you in your role?
I’ve been fortunate to take on a variety of NPS roles over the years. From Wyoming to the Sierra to the Caribbean, I’ve had the good fortune to supervise or work closely with volunteers in diverse settings.
Thanks to that experience, I’ve learned to recognize a good volunteer program when I see it. The Conservancy’s former volunteer program manager, Suzy Hasty, left me a well-oiled machine with exceptional team leaders, returning volunteers, a solid logistical infrastructure, and a great relationship with the NPS. On top of that, Simon McIntosh, our volunteer coordinator, brings a great blend of pragmatism, initiative, and firsthand experience with Yosemite’s busy season.
As I get settled in my new role, I’m taking time to appreciate the opportunity to be part of this program and community. I have plenty of ideas for expanding our reach and trying new initiatives, but plan to start by examining why the program works so well. As opportunities arise to address operational needs and challenges, I know I’ll be able to draw on my NPS experiences to share different perspectives and problem-solving tools.
Why are volunteers an important part of Yosemite?
People who donate their time often become advocates and ambassadors for the park. All of our volunteers serve Yosemite well in this way, but our work crews and visitor information assistants each provide different additional benefits.
While normally stationed at designated hubs, drawing on their Yosemite knowledge to help people navigate and enjoy the park, our nimble, well-trained monthlong visitor information assistants are always ready to adapt. If roadwork upends traffic and pedestrian flow, for example, they update their messages, and sometimes their locations, to communicate the necessary news with the public. Their operation is largely self-sufficient, and requires little infrastructure. In short, they are a park manager’s dream.
Our volunteer work crews provide an influx of highly motivated labor for projects that might not otherwise be tackled as quickly (or at all). Many of those projects focus on protecting resources from ongoing degradation, so the sooner they’re addressed, the better. On top of lending much-needed hands to important projects, volunteer work crews are great morale-boosters. The NPS crew leaders often work alone, or with just a few other colleagues, but during the Conservancy’s work weeks and weekends they get to share their efforts with a large group of people who care deeply about the park.
What tips do you have for people interested in volunteering in the park?
Start with an honest self-evaluation, and read the FAQs on our volunteer page. You don’t want to end up working long days without pay, camping and eating with strangers, and being far from the comforts of civilization if the job description and living conditions sound miserable to you. But if you’re drawn to the idea of spending your time working for the good of the park, connecting with nature, and forming close bonds with others who want to deepen their relationship with Yosemite, volunteering might be for you. If you decide to apply and are accepted, come ready to open yourself up to new opportunities and new people. This could be the experience of a lifetime.
You’ve been in the park since 2001. What’s your favorite Yosemite memory (so far)?
First, a disclaimer: After spending so much time in Yosemite, with so many great people, and in such a spectacular setting, I don’t want to diminish any of my three or four lifetimes’ worth of experiences in the park by singling one out over all the others.
I’ve built memories here with people who have since passed away, as well as with brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, close friends, and fellow rangers. I can recall countless moments that have felt incredibly poignant and life-list worthy: sitting around a campfire, resting on a summit, riding a bike in the Valley on a summer morning. Long wilderness trips that unlock a little more of the treasure chest of Yosemite’s lore and beauty could qualify, as could a day hike in the high country followed by a celebratory piece of pie à la mode at Tioga Pass Resort.
So, I’m not going to pick a favorite memory. Instead, I’ll describe one of my top 20. For my 50th birthday, my wife, Joy, a friend, and I camped above the shore of remote and beautiful Obelisk Lake. Early the next morning, we scrambled up to the top of nearby Mount Clark, new terrain for all of us, and sat atop an airy summit where the unforgettable view covers almost all of Yosemite.
At the time, I had only seen a small portion of the park, and didn’t yet know many of the far-off peaks and valleys. I remember thinking that if I was lucky, someday I would be able to come back to Mount Clark and see that the sweeping view was full of familiar places, each sparking a memory of another adventure. Though I haven’t been back to that summit yet, I have since traveled most of Yosemite’s trails and reached many of its summits, and have been able to share much of the park with Joy. And when we are on a peak or plateau, or even Glacier Point Road, we find comfort in seeing Mount Clark and thinking about how much we’ve done and seen together in Yosemite since that early hike.
We know you get to work in the park … but if you only had one day to spend in Yosemite, what would you do?
This may sound like a blatant Yosemite Conservancy promotion, but it’s true! If I only had a single day, I would want to make that day count and learn as much as I could. I would sign up for a Conservancy’s Custom Adventure day hike with Resident Naturalist Pete Devine. I'd ask him to take my wife, a few close friends, and me to one of his favorite places in the high country and tell us everything he knows. There would be pie at the end of the trip, maybe more than one piece. Did I mention that I like pie?
When not seeking summits and searching for pie, Mark will be overseeing our multifaceted volunteer program, which connects people with late-spring and summer opportunities. To learn more about giving back with Mark’s teams in the park, visit our volunteer page.
Above: Taking advantage of a dramatic backdrop! Mark poses for the camera in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, where he volunteered to work with local backcountry rangers in 2014. Unless noted, photos courtesy of Mark Marschall.