Without volunteers, the park would be overrun with vines, trails would be blocked and eroded, and many public programs would come to a halt.
Volunteers arrive in Rock Creek valley every week carrying axes and garden gloves, working with ponies and pandas, advancing public knowledge and scientific research. They represent the National Park Service and more than a dozen organizations working to preserve and protect the resources along Rock Creek and associated park areas.
Some volunteer opportunities are within the NPS itself — for example, helping out at the Nature Center and summer camps. The Park Service (as well as Montgomery Parks) also provides training to help certify volunteers to properly remove invasive plants from parkland. But there are many other ways to donate your time.
If a tree falls in the forest — whether anyone hears it or not — the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club will hear about it should the downed tree block a trail. For decades PATC volunteers have worked with park rangers to maintain Rock Creek Park's hiking and horse trails, without using power tools. They invite the public to join them on work trips a couple of times a month, usually on Saturday mornings. Don't worry: they'll train you to use axes, handsaws and other traditional tools safely and effectively.
PATC volunteers build the "cribbing" that keeps trails from collapsing into waterways. They construct steps to get hikers up slopes and arrange stones to help them hop across streams. And they erase so-called "social trails" — unofficial paths created by people (and dogs) that fragment wildlife habitats and are poorly located within the park landscape.
Supporting all of the park
Rock Creek Conservancy is the only NPS partner dedicated solely to Rock Creek and its parks. It's mission is to revitalize the entire watershed for present and future generations — from the creek's headwaters in Montgomery County through Rock Creek Park in DC to the outflow at the Potomac River.
Neighborhoods can volunteer to adopt a section of the creek and its tributaries as one of the Conservancy's Stream Teams. A couple of citizen squads monitor "their" piece of Rock Creek and organize clean-up days. RCC sponsors two parkwide efforts each year. In the first seven years of the Rock Creek Extreme Cleanup — held each April since 2009 — volunteers removed more than 70 tons of junk and 16,000 bags of trash along the creek in DC and Maryland.
DC's last remaining grist mill along Rock Creek is once again grinding flour, thanks to activism and fund-raising by the volunteers of Friends of Pierce Mill. The group also offers opportunities to serve as interpreters at the mill, to help maintain the fruit trees planted to commemorate the Peirce family orchards and to lead education and children's programs.
Other parks within the Rock Creek system have their own conservancies and friends groups. Among them is Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy, which aims not only to preserve and beautify, but also to renew the 1921 vision of landscape designer Beatrix Farrand in what is her last remaining wild garden.
Special interest groups
Whatever your special interest, there's a volunteer program that will appeal to you.
The Rock Creek Horse Center needs folks to lead public trail rides, groom and clean up after the horses, and help out at summer camps.
Amateur historians support the Civil War sites overseen by Rock Creek Park — from Fort DeRussy east to Fort Bunker Hill — through programs organized by the NPS and groups like the Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Volunteers interpret and even re-enact events more than 150 years ago that saved the nation's capital.
Volunteers from the DC Audubon Society conduct birdwatching field trips into the park and support the Rock Creek Songbirds Project, which has planted hundreds of native trees and shrubs crucial to the park's dwindling population of songbirds.
Many environmental programs benefit from volunteers from Casey Trees, which also recruits citizen scientists to monitor seasonal changes in the valley's tree canopy.
More creekside collaborations
FONZ — Friends of the National Zoo — provides tens of thousands of hours of service each year supporting threatened species housed along Rock Creek. Animal interpreters, zoo guides and camp aides deal with the public. Keeper aides get down and dirty with the animals. Behavior Watchers gather research data, and some operate the zoo's famous Panda Cam.
Members of National Capital Astronomers co-sponsor the park's monthly Exploring the Sky programs under the stars. Special events also depend on volunteers — from tennis scorekeepers and ballpersons at the Citi Open to birders participating in the Christmas Bird Count.
Despite the many challenges that threaten the land, water and historic structures within Rock Creek Park, funding levels are under increasing pressure. Volunteers working on behalf of the park and its many partners remain a crucial factor in any plan for a bright future for Washington's urban oasis.