U.S. parks and trails rely on a volunteer labor force

Like U.S. roads, bridges, dams and other infrastructure, public lands have their own backlog of needed repairs. According to a Congressional Research Service report published earlier this year, the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service have almost $20 billion in unmet maintenance needs between them.

The challenge of keeping up the parks and trails that millions of Americans walk, hike and camp in each year has been exacerbated by wildfires. Federal agencies have had to divert significant resources to fight fires that have grown in frequency and severity, with the situation likely to worsen due to continued climate change. Between 1995 and 2015, the U.S. Forest Service reports it lost 40% of its non-fire staff.

But these agencies do have one advantage over other government entities when it comes to maintaining their assets: free labor. More than 300,000 people volunteered at the national parks last year, hosting campground sites, leading tours, performing maintenance and even providing security. The park service puts the value of that service at $179 million.

Similarly, the 30 nationally designated trails in the U.S. exist only because volunteers maintain them. Last year, volunteers donated more than a million hours of time to maintaining trails, at a value of $24 million.

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