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Steven Elkinton, retired from the National Park Service: ‘Working with committed citizen volunteers, in my mind, is the highest form of public service.’

I came into federal service in 1978 as a landscape architect for the National Park Service. At first, I worked on a wide variety of projects in and around the Washington, D.C., area, including visitor centers, parking lots and historic landscapes.

Then, I spent four years as the first landscape architect at a new national park area in what was then called the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area in northeast Ohio. Every day there, we were...

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I came into federal service in 1978 as a landscape architect for the National Park Service. At first, I worked on a wide variety of projects in and around the Washington, D.C., area, including visitor centers, parking lots and historic landscapes.

Image courtesy of National Park Service.

Then, I spent four years as the first landscape architect at a new national park area in what was then called the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area in northeast Ohio. Every day there, we were aware of creating a showplace in a rural Ohio valley on behalf of all Americans, a place that would be a stimulating and refreshing to visit again and again.

In 1989, I took on a new job that I stayed in until I retired in 2014, coordinating National Park Service activities associated with the National Trails System. The key to the National Trails System Act is the critical roles of volunteers. I soon discovered I was a small part of a huge nationwide network of trail enthusiasts whose love of hiking, history and community transcended politics. This group has coalesced into an effective advocacy group, carrying out what I came to call “public interest advocacy.” Thanks to their good and continuing nationwide work, trails throughout the U.S. are increasingly protected and operated for the good and safety of all.

In 25 years of trail work, I watched the national system grow from 16 national scenic and historic trails to 30. And the biggest of many big events associated with them was the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition from 2003 to 2006. (In fact, planning for it began 10 years earlier.)

The dogged spirit of the Lewis and Clark Expedition — “undaunted courage,” as Stephen Ambrose called it — has come to characterize the thousands of Americans who support the national trails. Working with federal agencies, these volunteers will not take “no” for an answer. I came to so admire their creative tenacity.

It was a joy to serve (and even earn a pension) helping build America’s magnificent National Trails System in such a spirit of partnership. Very quickly, my civil service job became a passion, and I realized how blessed and lucky I had been to land such a position. Working with committed citizen volunteers, in my mind, is the highest form of public service.