The Beach is Trashed; Have You Got A Problem With That?

140,000 volunteers donated 5 million hours to the national parks at a value of $85.9 million in fiscal year 2004. But a group that wants to pick up trash to get rid of hurricane debris won’t be allowed to help.

Uncle Sam wants Americans to volunteer to help make America a better place to live and work. April 23-26 is National Volunteer Week.

The federal government has even set up a website to encourage more Americans to volunteer their time and efforts to benefit all of us. It’s a great idea; very few readers are likely to take issue with the concept.

If you look through the government ‘s volunteer site, you will find hundreds of opportunities. Many of these volunteer jobs are with the National Park Service. The pay is non-existent but volunteers get to work (as do the federal employees who work there) in some of the most beautiful areas of the world.

With a quick search of the site, I quickly located 109 opportunities listing the “National Park Service” as the “employer.” There is a certain irony in this as you will see.

One problem with government land is that few people want to take any responsibility for it. With a private landowner, responsibility for keeping the property maintained is usually definite. But, when we say that the land “belongs to all of us,” many people look at the land and conclude “it doesn’t belong to anyone.”

The National Park Service does a good job of maintaining large tracts of land for public use. Despite political differences on how the land is to be used, the agency is well-regarded and all of us have a sense of appreciation for the job they do in preserving land for public use and future generations.

But any federal agency is a bureaucracy. And, within a bureaucracy, there are many considerations that go into making day-to-day decisions. Most of these considerations have little to do with the primary mission of the agency and focus on more personal issues from the mundane to the important.

Most federal employees learn at one time in their career that it is often easier to say “no” to a proposal. If nothing is changed or if no action is taken, there is often nothing requiring a person to take responsibility for a decision. Unfortunately, while saying “no” may be easier and expedient, it may not be the right answer.

Here is a case in point.

The Gulf Islands National Seashore stretches 160 miles from Cat Island in Mississippi to the eastern tip of Santa Rosa Island in Florida. There are snowy-white beaches that go on for miles. There are no buildings, few people and tons of white sand and water. The green water of the Gulf of Mexico literally sparkles in the warm Florida sun. Numerous birds populate the fertile marshes and there are dense maritime forests.

This national park has had its share of rough weather in the past several years. No doubt, the Park Service has had trouble keeping up with maintaining the park because of the damage to the property.

But, in the spirit of volunteering that Uncle Sam has encouraged from all Americans, a group of people living along the Florida coast wants to help.

As you can see from the pictures below, the beaches are still beautiful and the park is an incredible place to visit. Some of the roads are still closed and probably won’t be open for some time. Visitors can still get to the area but you will have to walk to do it.

Unfortunately, trash litters the area. Tires, metal and plastic are everywhere. It’s not just unsightly. It is also unsafe–for people and for wildlife.

The area needs to be picked up. The National Park Service probably does not have the people or the money to do it.

With over 109 volunteer positions available through the Park Service through the website to help the agency with its mission, people willing to go into the park and pick up the trash from the last several hurricanes would expect to be welcomed–or at least not discouraged from helping pick up garbage.

But, according to an article by Wendy Victora in the Northwest Florida Daily News, the Park Service doesn’t think picking up the trash is a good idea. “I regret that we cannot accept your generous offer to help clean up that area at this time” wrote a park ranger to a group of volunteers–mostly military personnel from nearby military bases.

The volunteers can walk to the beach and are apparently welcome to haul away tons of trash by hand. But they will not be allowed by the Park Service to take a vehicle on to the beach to haul away garbage.

After reading the article, I drove to the beach to see how bad the garbage really is in this pristine stretch of beach property. You can get a feel for the area from the pictures below that were taken in the area yesterday.

No doubt, some of the volunteers are strong and can carry a load. But I doubt that any of them are going to be able to haul away large strips of roofing metal and large truck tires–even after getting up the courage to stick a hand inside a tire that has been sitting on the beach for months or years offering a cool refuge for snakes and insects.

Some volunteers have placed the trash into piles. The seagulls probably like that and it may make it easier to pick up the trash at some time in the future. But, says the Park Service, while there are not enough federal employees to pick up the trash and not enough money to pay contractors to do it, there are not enough federal employees to watch the volunteers do it either.

So, while the volunteers were ready, they had arranged for the county to coordinate the dumpsters necessary to handle the tons of trash they were going to bring in, and those wanting were set to help the agency do its job, the trash will continue to sit on the beach.

No doubt, a “no” is quicker and easier than allowing the volunteers to pick it up or arranging to have someone conduct a briefing explaining the agency’s concerns.

With the federal government, and the National Park Service in particular, urging Americans to volunteer their time, expertise and effort to helping make America a better place to work, this would have been a good chance for everyone to benefit.

No doubt, the agency had its reasons for rejecting the clean-up brigade. The volunteers would have to be careful not to disturb wildlife, including the sea turtles that will be nesting there in the near future. The agency may have felt more at ease having a ranger or other personnel explain the concerns and problems.

But, for whatever reason, the trash remains on the Gulf Island National Seashore and the turtles, joggers and park visitors willing to walk into the area to enjoy the natural beauty will have to work their way around the tires, plastic and metal roofing. No doubt, the agency will get to it when it has the time and money and the necessary experts to throw those tires into the back of the authorized trucks.

The National Park Service wants Americans to help and to participate in the agency’s mission: “Volunteers-In-Parks are Very Important People (VIPs)! In Fiscal Year 2004, 140,000 volunteers donated 5 million hours to your national parks at a value of $85.9 million. VIPs come from all over the world to help preserve and protect America’s natural and cultural heritage for the enjoyment of this and future generations. Volunteers of all ages give their time and expertise to help achieve the National Park Service mission.”

You just can’t help pick up the trash at the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47