The Kids Are Alright: Discovering National Parks Through Service

The Appalachian State University campus sits in the heart of Boone, NC, immediately accessible to the wonders of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail (top). The university offers various invitations to service in both sites. The guys of ASU's Delta Sigma Phi set off to work on the Blue Ridge Parkway's Tanawha Trail (middle). The ASU Trail Crew often finds itself helping the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club perform maintenance on the Appalachian Trail, shown here near Roan Mountain (bottom). Photos by Randy Johnson.

American’s are increasingly concerned that our kids are suffering from “nature deficit disorder” and that includes national parks. As the National Park Service closes its first century, park proponents across the country are trying to get young people engaged in parks and their preservation.

It’s a big challenge, but not all of the news is bad. One university town in North Carolina is showing how proximity to national parks invites newbies into involvement.

Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina draws more than its share of students who hike, paddle, snowboard, and ski. But not every student in this lofty corner of the Carolinas is automatically passionate about the outdoors—much less nearby units of the national park system—the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, a global icon, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, the most visited park system unit.

There are many outlets for outdoorsy students—but even kids who are unenthusiastic about the outdoors can be prime converts to national parks. Students invariably want to explore their new environs, and their schools encourage them to volunteer and offer community service. For nearby parks—that’s a second-to-none internship and outreach opportunity for rangers needing help. App State is one example of how diverse those opportunities can be.

A Fraternity For Service

Fraternities and sororities are a ubiquitous part of college life—and so are their service missions. Since its founding at the City College of New York in 1899, Delta Sigma Phi has been building “Better Men, Better Lives.” It’s represented at a number of North Carolina universities (Duke, NC State, UNC-Chapel Hill), but in 2012, the fraternity started an Appalachian State chapter as part of its “Vision 2025” expansion.

The effort aims at 5-8 new chapters each year with a goal of 200 by 2025. New chapter president Christopher Johnson, a major in ASU’s nationally-recognized appropriate technology department, liked the fraternity’s focus on service. “There are fraternities with very social goals, but I personally wanted to focus on service to the community and chose Delta Sig for their emphasis on giving back and professional development.”

Johnson and 11 of his 42 new fraternity brothers got their chance before Thanksgiving break when they set off on the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Tanawha Trail, a portion of North Carolina’s more than 1,000-mile long Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

The group was showed how to “trim a trail” and enthusiastically began a beautiful day in the woods by splitting into two groups. The first group, “a pruning crew,” rehabilitated twice the distance of path that the trail’s task force leader expected. A second crew, including Chris Johnson, trimmed vegetation and worked with certified chainsaw operators to remove trees blocking the trail.

A few members of the group had done trail maintenance in the past, but the norm was definitely the opposite. Take new Delta Sig brother Daniel McAllister, from Tampa Florida.

McAllister didn’t come to the mountains to trim trail. “The change of scenery was appealing to me,” he says. “After living in the city, I was really tired of the constant rushing and noise, and a college town tucked away in the mountains seemed to be perfect.”

“Before I joined Delta Sigma Phi,” says McAllister, “I had some interest in exploring the area with friends, but I joined the fraternity and activity ideas included hiking trips. Eventually, that morphed into community service—and from there the trail renovation project got us out there.”

McAllister enjoyed his first time on a trail working, and not just wandering. “It felt really good undertaking a project to benefit outdoor enthusiasts and casual hikers alike,” he says. “If the work we did out there creates a more positive public experience of the Blue Ridge Parkway—I think our fraternity is succeeding in its service mission.”

Is this a one-shot deal for Daniel? “I’m excited about the prospect of further involvement with the trail project,” he says.

The idea of “service to parks” was new for even some of the fraternity’s hikers. Luke Henry, from the Piedmont town of Pittsboro, spent a lot of time in the Boone area skiing and hiking with his Dad. Since starting at ASU, Luke’s been “driving down the Parkway and stopping whenever a trail looked interesting,” but “oddly enough, I never really thought about trail work. I mean, I knew the trail had to be maintained, but it just never clicked what that meant.”

The Delta Sig work day opened his eyes. “To know that someone is going to walk on this trail and enjoy it a little bit more because of the work I put in is really rewarding,” he says. “I’d love to do it again!”

Even Zack Childers, from nearby Asheville, NC, and well-familiar with the mountains around Boone, was surprised. “One of the biggest reasons I decided to join Delta Sig,” he says, “is that I knew fraternities on campus offered group hikes. I just never expected to help out the community at the same time. Its great knowing that the trail will be easier to navigate with all that debris and brush out of the way.”

The ASU Trail Crew

The name “ASU Trail Crew” sounds serious, right? Actually, says Eric Frauman, professor of recreation management, “There are folks in the Trail Crew who are relative novices to trail maintenance and even hiking.”

“Part of the attraction,” he says, “at least from my perspective as the club’s faculty advisor, is that members of the Trail Crew are pretty low key, good people.” Also opposing that “hard core trail crew” expectation, he says, is that, “There isn't any conformity expectation or type of personality needed for the Trail Crew. That might explain the ‘draw’ for some—‘be yourself, and be as involved as you wish.’”

Frauman says the club “attracts students through the ASU Club Expo,” at the beginning of each semester, and the "Outdoor Gear and Clothes Swap/Sale.” The group is also, “on the radar of a number of faculty and staff at ASU and they guide students to us who are looking for volunteer and service opportunities in ‘the great outdoors.’"

That formula has made the crew indispensable—building new trails at North Carolina’s Elk Knob and Grandfather Mountain State Parks, as well as maintaining sections of the Appalachian Trail and Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

Ultimately, says Frauman, “Our work fits well with the interests of students at ASU looking to give back to the places they’re drawn to for recreation.”

One Story of Service

Jame Lautzenheiser came to Appalachian State University in spring 2011 to study Biology and was required “to do 25 hours of community service with any group that I chose. I got involved with the ASU Trail Crew.”

Lautzenheiser “had a blast,” and quickly found himself involved. “It was during my first semester as vice president that I got my first taste of getting people involved in the outdoors. The ability to enable others to experience places and activities they may not otherwise experience was powerful.”

So was experiencing the nationally significant summits of the Appalachian Trail.

“I still remember our first overnight trip,” he says. “We worked on the Appalachian Trail, and stayed the night at a hostel. It was in that hostel winding down for the night that I knew I was part of something bigger than myself. Seeing the participant's faces, hearing the things they talked about, knowing they were living in the moment—and watching this group of young adults go to bed before 9 pm on a Saturday night fully satisfied with their day's actions and surrounded by new friends—I knew this was something I wanted to continue doing.”

 The following semester, Jame switched to a Recreation Management major and “can hardly imagine going down a different path. And it all started with a little volunteering ...”

New Stories Starting

Frauman says, “I believe clubs like the Trail Crew provide an outlet for students to interact with their fellow citizens and nature in a way that leaves them with a greater appreciation for both.”

Ultimately, that’s exactly what any citizen gets supporting a park friends group or just experiencing our national parks—and why it’s critical that young people have at times unexpected avenues to park participation.

Appalachian State may be a “mountain identity” school that attracts young people inclined to huffing up hiking trails—but any school near a national park is a ripe opportunity for the university, and the nearby park, to find each other and help build the future of both.