- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - Jim Crabb looked every bit the expert recently as he guided three visitors through the history of the Miller family and its historic Jackson homestead on the National Elk Refuge.

He should be an expert, after seven years of summers spent on the refuge.

But neither he nor the other 23 hard workers who call the refuge home each summer are making a dime. They are part of a corps of federal volunteers who bring their RVs and enthusiasm for public service to our nation’s refuges, parks and visitor centers.

“When the snow gets up to my axle I’m back to Texas,” said Crabb, whose carved wooden badge fits well with the 1890s home and its outbuildings.

In Texas, where Crabb has family, his RV rests for the winter at the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, his second home.

Although a couple of residences exist for volunteers who don’t have their own RVs, most who participate in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service resident volunteer program trade utility hookups for a minimum of 32 hours of work each week.

It’s a lifestyle chosen by Crabb, a former pharmaceuticals salesman whose 30-year career required a lot of travel. He said returning to Jackson and this close-knit group each spring is like going to a family reunion.

“Some of your best friends are there,” Crabb said. “You come back and you pick up right where you left off in October.”

“The National Elk Refuge has the largest volunteer program in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain Prairie Region,” said Lori Iverson, outreach and visitor services coordinator for the refuge.

“The volunteer program is essential because volunteers are used to do mission-critical habitat and wildlife work, keep facilities open and offer visitor services and educational programs that could not be done with the refuge’s permanent staff,” Iverson said. The refuge has fewer than 11 employees.

Last July found volunteer Walt Nilson and his wife, Betty, working side by side as Independence Day crowds swelled into the downtown visitor center.

“It’s probably one of the busiest visitor centers in the state,” Walt Nilson said.

The volunteers pass out information not just about the refuge but also about national parks and even for the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. Their shift that day: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

One of Nilson’s favorite jobs is explaining to groups, particularly to kids, about the elk refuge with hands-on demonstrations.

“A few hours a day we take a tour up on the deck,” he said.

Nilson said it isn’t all work, but it’s a lifestyle the retired couple with grown children can afford to enjoy for the summer months before heading back home to North Carolina for a temperate winter.

Across the green meadow from the visitor center is the elk refuge’s unimposing headquarters. The compound, just east of St. John’s Medical Center on Broadway, is set before an expanse of steep green hills, over which some of the Gros Ventre Mountain Range’s loftiest peaks poke up like jagged teeth.

It is here in the quiet of the front office one might find Ed Houck, who with his wife, Linda, also volunteers his summers.

“We fill a lot of gaps when there are not spots for government employees,” said Houck, who often spent summers in Jackson working various jobs before settling into the volunteer gig.

Although he was also here for the winter this year, “normally I just do the summer,” he said.

That makes 10 summers in Jackson, five spent at the refuge.

Normally he’s not “riding a desk,” preferring to work in the auto shop, but he said an injury left him on office duty.

Just outside the office building is one of the campgrounds where RVs await their owners during the work days.

It’s not all back office or visitor counter work.

Two days a week volunteers Betty and Chuck Mulcahy are in the field.

Some days they observe the trumpeter swan population, surveying nesting habits, counting cygnets after they hatch and making sure those cygnets are still in the nest weeks later. The nests are mapped by the volunteers.

Another of the Mulcahys’ tasks is monitoring the radio-collared wolf population.

“We don’t see the wolves, but we hear them on the tracking device as a little ‘ticky’ noise,” Betty Mulcahy said.

The rest of the work days are spent lending a hand in the visitor center.

The Mulcahys stay among a group of eight RVs at the end of the Miller House parking lot in what she described as a remarkably harmonious community.

“It’s really a good group of people,” Mulcahy said. “Everybody here pretty much gets along.”

But if the Grand Teton Music Festival has a concert happening, don’t look for this couple at the RV camp.

Nine years ago, after their kids left home, the couple sold their house to be full-time RV’ers. The summer stop in Jackson means seeing their musician children playing in the symphony.

With that to look forward to, good neighbors and a great view of Miller Butte, Mulcahy said there’s no reason not to summer at the refuge.

Winter will find them in a refuge in Florida, where Chuck Mulcahy comes from.

While it’s a safe guess that the committed volunteers are dedicated to preservation and enjoy what nature has to offer, not all live in RVs.

Bill Maltby, a “lifelong career banker” in the Denver region most of his professional life, lives in the upstairs of the Miller House.

“It’s not super-modern,” he said of the house. “It’s comfortable.”

Maltby takes care of the grounds at the Miller house, “including cleaning the picnic area so visitors can have a nice place to picnic.”

While other volunteers, mostly couples, brought their homes or second homes with them and will drive away in them, winter means uncertainty for Maltby.

He isn’t a standard retiree and won’t be motoring off to another refuge.

When he’s not volunteering he usually teaches. He has spent 17 years teaching business and finance in former Soviet bloc countries. Most recently his winters were spent in Ukraine near Odessa, in what is now close to the conflict zone.

He doesn’t know if it will be safe enough to go back this year.

“I work to teach people finance,” Maltby said.

He also teaches organizational skills needed to run a successful business in a free-market economy. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, people had to learn modern business from scratch, and he’s been one of the instructors.

“Everything was top-down before,” Maltby said. “Now you have to work with people.”

But on one recent glorious Friday, after a full day of work at the visitor center, Maltby had other things on his mind - like a hike.

“I love wildlife,” he said. “I’m deep into the objectives of the refuge. I love nature.”

___

Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, https://www.jhnewsandguide.com

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