Boomers Take the Lead in Outdoor Volunteering

Apr 13, 2012

The oldest of the baby boomer generation turns 66 this year, and while that age may technically qualify them as senior citizens, it’s not a label they’re taking sitting down.  Here's a closer look at how conservation groups are tapping into this pool of willing and able-bodied volunteers.

On the Domingo Baca trail at Sandia Peak, a group of four retired engineers is strategizing about how to move one rather large rock. Well, call it a boulder. These guys are with the Active Single Boomers Meet-Up group, here today to build check dams to reduce trail erosion. With about 200 miles of trail in the Sandia Mountains, forest ranger Ryan Reineke says keeping up with regular maintenance would be almost impossible without the help of volunteers.

 “Volunteers are really important to us because we have a pretty limited staff. There’s really only two of us doing the trail work out here.”

And he says older adults have been a huge source of manpower.

“Generally that kind of 50s to70s I would say would be our majority of our volunteers.”

Group member Darlene Fataruso, says, for her, this work just makes sense.

"Well if we’re out here and we’re taking advantage of the opportunities that the wilderness and the open space areas here in Albuquerque afford us then it’s just a way to give back.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Susan Ostlie the leader of the Rio Grande area Great Old Broads for Wilderness an advocacy group dedicated to maintaining healthy natural areas.

“A lot of these are people who have spent their whole lives doing different things outdoors-biking and hiking and back packing-so if you can do something positive to leave that available for the next generation I think that that’s a real motivator for this demographic.”

Ostlie is actually rather new to her leadership position with the Great Old Broads and largely responsible for re activating the group in Albuquerque. Since restarting last fall, the group has gained more than 25 members and is participating in about 5 projects around the area. She says the interest was always there all it took was a little bit of organization to get everyone moving.

AARP New Mexico’s Gene Varela says today’s retirees are healthier and living longer.

“It used to be that you had very definite ages. You know, you’re 60 and older or you’re 65 and older and you’re seniors. Well nowadays that’s kind of breaking down. They have the abilities to stay involved. These open the door that they don’t feel like they’re at the point where they’re “senior”. There is that feeling that the involvement in volunteering and doing community work actually helps to remain healthy.”

That “feeling” is corroborated by a 2010 Cornell University study showing that volunteering outdoors, especially, can have dramatic health benefits for older adults.

Varela adds that, unlike their predecessors baby boomers tend to favor short work sessions over longer term commitments like service clubs.

“They’re willing to come in periodically and help you but don’t ask them to commit to a monthly meeting where they have to keep records and they have to do the documentation and everything else. They don’t want that kind of commitment.”

But a one day rock moving project-that fits the bill quite nicely.

Organizations like the Sierra Club, the National Forest Service, and Friends of the Sandia Mountains say they don’t target specific age groups when recruiting volunteers. But with so many able bodied workers at the ready and such potential for a mutually beneficial relationship a bit of boomer-centric outreach might be a strategy worth reconsidering.