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Components of and Barriers to Building Successful Interagency Wilderness Citizen Stewardship Programs

Successful citizen wilderness stewardship programs are partnerships, and partnerships are all about relationships, and establishing and cultivating relationships take both time and dedication.


"Successes come when time is dedicated to cultivating relationships with volunteer organizations, preparing field projects, conducting outreach, and coordinating volunteer efforts."


Integrity of the National Wilderness Preservation System is threatened by fire suppression, invasive species, heavy and highly concentrated use of sensitive areas, and a growing disconnect between people and wilderness. The staff, skill base, and funding needed to address these challenges continue to decline and are currently insufficient. Unless approaches for closing this staffing and funding gap are developed, the integrity of wilderness will continue to erode and, along with it, the ecologic, economic, and social benefits of wilderness to our citizens, our country, and our world.

One approach successfully employed by some units to help compensate for federal staffing and funding shortfalls is developing and deploying skilled citizen wilderness stewards. This article identifies common components of successful volunteer wilderness citizen stewardship programs as well as barriers.

Individual and group meetings were conducted during the 2004 calendar year to explore and identify intersecting circles of interest and capacity among agencies, academia, volunteers, and other partner organizations in developing and deploying citizen wilderness stewards. Specific to the Forest Service are elements of the 10-Year Wilderness Stewardship Challenge that could successfully be addressed by citizen wilderness stewards.

Components of Successful Programs

A number of successful citizen wilderness stewardship programs were reviewed to determine what makes them work. When compared one to another, the following five common components of success surfaced.

1. Agency champion: The most successful projects included an agency employee who solidly invested in volunteer efforts by providing leadership, support, feedback, reward, and sometimes field presence.

  • Leadership — Time was taken to build and cultivate trusted relationships with volunteer organizations.
  • Support — Bunkhouse and office space, equipment and supplies, transportation, radios, training, etc. were furnished by the agency to the degree possible.
  • Feedback — Projects were evaluated from the perspective of both parties, with feedback provided to decision makers.
  • Reward — Volunteer efforts were appropriately acknowledged and rewarded.
  • Field presence — Agency employees participated in project work to the degree possible.

2. Nongovernmental champion: The most successful projects included a nongovernmental organization that conducted volunteer recruitment, training, outfitting, and supervision.

  • Recruitment — Conducted outreach and matched volunteer interest and skill with the project.
  • Training — Provided training to ensure appropriate skill level for the project with some agency support.
  • Outfitting — Provided food, transportation, and equipment with minimal agency support.
  • Supervision — Provided fulltime field supervision with minimal agency support.

3. Meaningful volunteer experiences: The most successful projects were those inspiring connectedness and community, interesting and meaningful work with clear expectations and responsibilities, adequate training, effective supervision, and appropriate recognition.

  • Connectedness and community — Clearly connected volunteer contributions to final outcomes so volunteers could see how important their efforts were in the big picture no matter how menial the task may have been. There was a common sense of what volunteers were trying to achieve together with the agency, resulting in a strong sense of community and an incentive to return.
  • Interesting and meaningful work — Large or small, specific, place-based, discrete projects were offered having a beginning, middle, and end, on a continuum from weekend to weeklong to monthlong, that were clearly connected to making a positive difference to the resource. These projects and programs generated ownership and enthusiasm among volunteers and an incentive to return.
  • Clear expectations and responsibilities — Expectations and responsibilities were clearly defined for the agency, volunteer supervisor, and volunteers so there was no confusion about who was supposed to do what. This helped ensure a positive experience for all parties.
  • Adequate training — Volunteers were provided the training needed to do the job right. This eliminated frustration, generated mutual respect, improved safety, resulted in good work, and provided an incentive to return.
  • Effective supervision — Volunteers were supervised by highly qualified, experienced, and inspiring individuals, agency/nonagency/both, who provided guidance and opportunities for growth throughout the entire experience.
  • Appropriate recognition — Volunteers received recognition appropriate to their effort and contribution.

4. Academic and scientific support — Among the most successful monitoring projects were those supported by academic institutions providing training, ensuring data quality assurance and quality control, data analysis, and long-term project continuity and management.

  • Training — Provided volunteers monitoring training, use of equipment, survey instruments, etc.
  • Data quality assurance/control, analysis — Conducted built-in field checks to ensure QA/QC and analyze data, providing results to decision maker.
  • Long-term continuity — Managed long-term monitoring projects to ensure continuity over time, application to long-term global trends.

5. Meets needs — Successful citizen stewardship efforts meet both agency and nongovernmental organization needs.

Agency Needs

  • Tie need with opportunity
  • Think of volunteers as partners
    Conduct air quality monitoring
  • Build social capacity through experience as wilderness stewards
  • Data analysis/collection
  • Recreation management and dispersion of people
  • Standardized program in training, recruitment, reimbursement
  • Identify experiences we can give people while getting work done

Nongovernmental Organization Needs

  • Educate citizens for decision making
  • Cultivate happy, healthy, connected people
  • Provide opportunity for citizens to serve
  • Match desired experience to project; retirees might have different needs, skills development
  • Provide appropriate recognition of volunteers
  • Meet organization mission
  • Preserve access
  • Consider volunteer objectives

Barriers to Successful Efforts

Some efforts to develop and deploy citizen wilderness stewards failed, and even successful citizen wilderness stewardship programs experienced setbacks along the way. When compared one to another, the following five common barriers preventing successful citizen stewardship programs surfaced:

1. Insufficient agency collaboration and coordination with volunteer organizations

Limited agency staff and time. There are fewer employees doing more work who are stretched so thin that they cannot spend time cultivating relationships with volunteer organizations, preparing field projects, conducting outreach, and coordinating volunteer efforts.

Limited knowledge and expertise. There is inconsistency in volunteer management among staff due to varying levels of awareness and knowledge about available partnership authorities.

2. Bureaucratic barriers

Inability to reimburse — New requirements make it almost impossible to reimburse volunteers for gas, supplies, etc. This is a tremendous impediment to volunteer efforts resulting in the generation of ill will between otherwise supportive volunteers, a decline in returning volunteers, and a lack of incentive for agency employees to continue volunteer efforts.

  • Inability to provide gifts — The agency cannot purchase gifts in recognition of volunteer efforts. They have to find some other organization to do this, adding to the already demanding volunteer coordination efforts.

3. Insufficient volunteer training and support

  • Training — Volunteers are treated as if they were employees, so before they even get to technical training in monitoring, trail reconstruction, campsite restoration, weed identification, etc., they are required to take a considerable amount of training, including defensive driving, crosscut saw safety, horse safety, first-aid certification, field communications, etc.

In some cases volunteers spend more time in training than they spend in the field, unless they are returning volunteers. Concern about liability and number of courses required frequently precludes investment in volunteer program development.

  • Support — Providing bunkhouse and office space, equipment, supplies, transportation, and the inability to dedicate time with volunteers in the field are barriers.

4. Insufficient incentive

  • Agency — Rather than being rewarded for accomplishing work with volunteers, some units are being penalized by having funds shifted away from their program to another program. Because they have demonstrated an ability to make do with less, even less is given. Some become a victim of their own success.
  • Volunteers — Volunteers are most interested in the volunteer experience. They want interesting and meaningful work with clear responsibilities, effective supervision, and appropriate recognition. Without these incentives, they are unlikely to return.

5. Insufficient commitment

  • Agency — Although there are unquestionably outstanding exceptions, agencies as a whole do not have a volunteer culture. In some cases, employees do not believe volunteers capable of doing their work. In other cases, employees are threatened because volunteers can do their work. Many employees simply don't want to or don't have time to spend coordinating volunteer efforts.

Generating volunteer hours is not part of employee performance elements. Volunteers aren't free. It takes time to build a strong commitment from both parties, to do the planning to prepare a field project, and to conduct outreach. Spending time cultivating volunteer opportunities is not a priority.

  • Volunteers — If volunteers don't show up, projects are canceled, resulting in lost investment and disappointment among volunteers who didn't cancel.

Implications and Recommendations

Consistently, the most successful citizen wilderness stewardship programs displayed the common elements of success and avoided the barriers presented herein. The implication is that if units launching citizen wilderness stewardship efforts embrace the common elements of success and avoid the barriers, their likelihood of success will be significantly greater than those who choose to do otherwise.

Results further suggest that units would benefit tremendously from establishment of citizen wilderness stewardship program coordinator positions to cultivate relationships with volunteer organizations, prepare field projects, conduct outreach, and coordinate volunteer efforts. Additionally, results indicate that all units considering establishing new or enhancing existing citizen stewardship programs would benefit from knowing who is interested in what types of stewardship opportunities, what opportunities are available, and how stewards can be trained. In light of these implications, the following six recommendations are offered:

1. Embrace components of success and avoid barriers. Ensure that units considering development of citizen wilderness stewardship programs are aware of and follow to the degree possible the identified components of success.

  • distribute electronically through wilderness mailing lists.
  • post on

2. Explore nonfederal funding in support of citizen stewardship program coordinator positions. Given current limitations of federal funding, pursue private funding in support of these positions with organizations such as the Outdoor Industry Association.

3. Identification. Launch efforts to recommend a process to successfully.

  • identify organizations interested in participating in wilderness projects and they need in order to be involved.
  • identify projects to be completed and requirements for participation.
  • match projects with interested volunteer organizations.

4. Organization and Training. Explore methods for getting nongovernmental organizations to provide leadership in:

  • organizing, providing logistical support for, and implementing project work.
  • training volunteers.

5. Coordination.

  • Provide leadership in coordination at the local, regional, and national levels by designating agency champions on each project site.

6. Motivation and Accountability

  • figure out what motivates some agency employees to continue developing volunteer programs, in spite of all the reasons they have not to do it, then institutionalize it.
  • figure out what motivates volunteer participation, and provide those incentives.
  • define accountability and build it into performance elements.
  • include "actively promoting and managing volunteers" in wilderness managers' position descriptions.
  • reward success.
  • conduct a two-way review of each project upon completion to evaluate success.

Although citizen wilderness stewardship programs will not completely compensate for federal staffing and funding shortfalls, they are one means to continue advancing wilderness programs in light of these austere times. A word of caution to those eager to launch such a program:

The most successful citizen wilderness stewardship programs include a nongovernmental champion who conducts volunteer recruitment, training, outfitting, and supervision, and a solidly invested agency champion to provide leadership, support, feedback, reward, and sometimes field presence. Given these requirements for success, citizen wilderness stewardship programs are not to be entered into lightly. They most certainly cannot be thought of, or marketed as, "cheap labor." Rather, successful citizen wilderness stewardship programs are partnerships — and partnerships are all about relationships, and establishing and cultivating relationships take both time and dedication. Units unwilling or unable to dedicate time to this endeavor are discouraged from even attempting to launch citizen wilderness stewardship programs.

Those units having successful citizen wilderness stewardship programs stand as a testimony to what can be achieved for wilderness. Their successes come when time is dedicated to cultivating relationships with volunteer organizations, preparing field projects, conducting outreach, and coordinating volunteer efforts. We are thankful for their inspiring examples to help ensure an enduring resource of wilderness.

The Authors:

CONNIE G. MYERS is the director of the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center located in the James E. Todd Building, 32 Campus Drive, Missoula, Montana 59812-3168 - email:

DON HUNGER is the Senior Director for Partnership Development, The Student Conservation Association, 1201 Cornwall Avenue, Suite 104, Bellingham, WA 98225 - email:

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