Volunteers who have donated thousands of hours of their time to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park have been walking off the job in response to what they describe as a hostile and unsafe work environment that the National Park Service has done little to fix.
The park, a 184.5-mile sliver of land that runs along the Potomac River from Georgetown to Cumberland, Md., has one of the largest volunteer programs in the national park system. Last year, more than 3,400 people clocked nearly 65,000 hours of service on the C&O park. That labor, had it been by paid staff, would have cost taxpayers about $1.6 million, according to the Park Service.
As the agency’s budget has shrunk and staff positions remain unfilled, volunteers and the Park Service said it has become increasingly necessary to rely on a robust network of volunteers to perform tasks such as trail upkeep and running certain programs.
But in recent months, those programs have lost key leaders and participants because of tension between the park and some of its most active volunteers. These departures have hurt programs and made the park less safe for visitors, several volunteers said.
“If we run into a difficult rescue or run into an issue out on the trail, a lot of people are really concerned about being out there and getting no help from the park,” said Kevin Murphy, a retired federal worker who has volunteered with the Billy Goat Trail Steward program for five years. “It’s getting unsafe for visitors, too, because there are less of us out there who are fully trained, experienced and who can help in an emergency.”
An internal study conducted this year that surveyed about 100 volunteers and employees is expected to make recommendations for reforming volunteer programs and addressing management issues.
“As the number of volunteers goes up, our ability to manage them has gone down,” said C&O Superintendent Kevin Brandt. “We’re looking at what we can do to ensure our volunteers are working safely, are trained properly and are led properly and thanked properly.”
The report, a draft of which was submitted to Brandt on July 31, will probably be finalized by next month, said Einar Olsen, the Park Service’s assistant regional director for inspections and evaluations. But volunteers, who have been eager to see the findings, have heard little about its progress or expected delivery date.
For several current and former volunteers, it has felt like the latest in a series of slights.
“I’ve heard some staff say to a number of people things like, ‘You’re a volunteer; if you don’t like how we do things, just leave,’ and we’re out there to help park staff,” Murphy said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to treat people that way.”
More than a half-dozen volunteers recalled being demeaned or belittled by park staff and made to feel as if their contributions weren’t important.
One volunteer, who had been on the trail picking up bags of dog droppings, was mocked by staff as he returned to the trailhead, volunteers said. After that, they said, several rangers called volunteers “the poop patrol” and “garbage collectors.”
C&O volunteers receive a handbook that outlines rules and what to expect from the park. Several promises are enshrined in what the handbook calls its “Volunteer Bill of Rights.”
Among them: the right to “be treated as a co-worker, not just free help,” the right to “proper job training” and the right to an “orderly” and respectful place to work.
For months, volunteers said, those rights have been violated.
“I find that when I finally do come into contact with NPS personnel they generally are apathetic, unappreciative and unsupportive,” Navy veteran and C&O volunteer Justice Parrott wrote in a March letter to Park Service ombudsman Scott Deyo.
Training has lapsed, and debates over uniforms, water bottles and other details have prevented some volunteers from performing basic duties, several said.
“Training has effectively stopped,” said Kevin Scallan, a volunteer with the Bike Patrol and Billy Goat Trail Steward programs. “And it’s not isolated to this group or that group. Quite a number of people are upset across all the programs in the park.”
A tipping point many volunteers point to was in February, when C&O leaders asked volunteers to respond to a survey about “issues and experiences that happened within the last 5 years” for the purpose of improving programs and “the volunteer experience.” The survey, which asked participants for their full names and contact information, caused many to question its intent because it was not anonymous.
Soon after, Bob King, coordinator of the Billy Goat Trail Steward program — a legion of volunteers who patrol one of the park’s most challenging trails — was forced out.
King, who was named a volunteer of the year in 2012 and had led the Billy Goat Trail Steward program since 2013, said he was blindsided by the dismissal.
He blamed his removal, in part, on his candor when answering the Park Service’s survey in which, he said, he highlighted problems with the program and how volunteers were treated.
Responding to an email accepting his “verbal resignation” on Feb. 21, King wrote that he had never, in fact, resigned.
In communications with King obtained by The Washington Post, Park Service officials wrote that King had been rude to visitors and behaved inappropriately when dealing with C&O staff. Volunteers who worked with King bristled at the accusations, calling him loyal, dedicated and widely revered.
Several volunteers have quit, in protest, since King’s dismissal, including his wife, Deena Barlev.
“There’s just this general sense of what the hell was that? What happened? And why won’t anyone explain it to us?” Scallan said.
Brandt declined to comment on King’s dismissal and its fallout, saying the Park Service does not publicly comment on personnel matters.
Several volunteers who remain said they’ve cut down on their hours and dread running into Park Service workers on the trail. The park they love no longer feels welcoming, they said.
“The park really felt like family,” Barlev said. “We grieved each other’s losses, we celebrated each other’s joys, births and babies. We fed each other, and we asked about each other’s aging parents. And suddenly we can’t talk to each other?”
Frustrations bubbled over during a June meeting with Park Service officials and C&O volunteers when Olsen said some of the issues appeared to stem from “how things have been communicated” by volunteers.
“If there’s a difficulty in communication, it probably goes both ways,” said Ric Jackson, a volunteer who runs the Bike Loaner Program on the C&O Canal. “You can’t mistreat us. You can’t treat us like children. You can’t order us to do arbitrary things and expect us to do it without question. They have a huge physical resource here in these people — people who really care — and they’re wasting it.”
Jackson said the number of volunteers who have walked off the job in protest or frustration has hurt programs. But park officials, who instituted a freeze on adding volunteers this year, said a slimmed-down squad might improve the park’s ability to oversee programs and interact with volunteers one-on-one.
The C&O Canal has lost about 7 percent of its staff in the past eight years because of budget cuts, Brandt said, forcing park staff to focus on areas deemed “most critical.” There aren’t enough people left to coordinate volunteer efforts on a full-time basis.
Out on the trail — with the sun beating down on visitors who forgot to pack water or people who twist ankles and knees traversing the sharp boulders that line the Billy Goat Trail — volunteers said it’s the only place they still feel at ease.
Donald Sladkin, 77, went out on Labor Day weekend wearing a neon orange vest adorned with a patch that identified him as a Billy Goat Trail steward. As he hiked, clambering over roots and rocks, he answered questions and offered water to winded passersby.
“Oh wow,” a woman said, seeing his vest. “What a cool job! You get to be out here helping people all day, right?”
Sladkin smiled. That’s why he signed up.
But on this day, it was hard to shake the feeling that things had changed for good.
As he walked back toward the visitors center, where park rangers and volunteers are most likely to run into one another, he braced himself.
“It’s kind of depressing,” he said. “It just doesn’t have that same camaraderie feel to it. And I don’t know how they’re going to get it back.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said volunteer Vinh Le-Si was one of the Park Service volunteers who quit in frustration. He quit for personal reasons. This version has been corrected.