By Marcus Heerdt/Fall River County Herald-Star
HOT SPRINGS – The Black Hills Parks and Forests Association’s (BHPFA) volunteer ambassador program at Wind Cave National Park is now in its second year with a current total of seven volunteers who assist visitors in the park near the prairie dog town located at the junction of US Highway 385 and SD Highway 87.
“Our volunteers assist visitors to Wind Cave by answering frequently asked questions, helping with directions, and also by providing education about the park’s wildlife,” said BHPFA Volunteer and Program Manager Andrea Fountain. “Our ambassadors are advocates for the park and are available to help on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays because those are the park’s busiest days of the week.”
BHPFA, whose main offices are located inside the visitor center at Wind Cave, is a non-profit organization supporting interpretive programs, educational activities, and research efforts to protect and preserve the cultural and natural resources of the Black Hills region and the Nebraska Panhandle. BHPFA is an official non-profit partner of Wind Cave and the volunteer ambassador program was developed and is coordinated and paid for by BHPFA.
“While attending the 2021 Public Lands Alliance virtual conference, I learned that other non-profit organizations similar to ours were assisting their public land partners by using volunteers to assist with visitor services,” said Fountain. “This was done in response to the coronavirus pandemic because there was an increased need for visitor services at federal public lands sites throughout the nation due to unprecedented levels of visitation.”
According to Fountain, in the past two years, individuals from Hot Springs, Custer, Rapid City, and Piedmont have volunteered their time to the ambassador program.
Retired university professor and high school teacher Judy Cox-Henderson of Hot Springs is in her first year of being a BHPFA volunteer ambassador and enjoys her time near the prairie dog town at the junction of 385 and 87 at Wind Cave.
“My favorite part about volunteering is meeting and talking with visitors from all across the nation and world,” said Cox-Henderson.
Fountain said that due to the success of the volunteer program at Wind Cave, BHPFA has expanded its ambassador program to the Black Hills National Forest’s visitor center at Pactola Reservoir.
“Pactola has such high visitation that our organization felt it necessary to provide this service there so that people can learn about the area’s history, environment, and wildlife,” said Fountain.
Fountain said that volunteers at both Wind Cave and Pactola have a display table with items such as animal furs and antlers, guidebooks and maps for the area, and activities for children.
“The furs and antlers attract a lot of attention from families with children,” Fountain said. “It sparks fun conversations between the ambassadors and the children about Wind Cave wildlife. It’s a great learning opportunity.”
“Our mission is to assist our federal partners with their interpretive and education missions,” said BHPFA Executive Director Patty Ressler. “The ambassador program is a great way for us to fulfill that mission. We are very grateful to the volunteers who are so generous with their time and happy that we can contribute to the visiting public’s understanding of the amazing public lands around us.”