To some, Jason Clonts is living the dream.
As a park host, he lives rent-free in a cabin at Lewisville Regional Park, which sits on 159 acres divided by the East Fork Lewis River. It’s about a half-hour drive north of Vancouver, northwest of Battle Ground Lake State Park.
The cabin has three bedrooms, with an upstairs loft master suite.
“It’s very rustic; it definitely feels like a cabin. It’s made from old, hand-cut timbers,” Clonts said.
Though there’s no camping at Lewisville Regional Park, there are 13 shelters, 15 sets of playground equipment and five restrooms that need overseeing. During summer 2020 especially, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, park systems observed an uptick in the number of people seeking refuge in natural spaces.
“We saw record numbers of park visitors, especially the big regional parks,” Clark County Public Works volunteer coordinator Kaley McLachlan-Burton said. “I know we would have really struggled to provide increased sanitation with COVID if it weren’t for the park hosts because our maintenance crews are stretched pretty thin.”
She said that hosts were key in identifying problems — such as litter or broken equipment — before they escalated from overuse.
“Having those eyes and ears, I don’t think the park experience would have been as enjoyable last summer if it weren’t for our park hosts,” she said.
Park hosts are something of an alternative to park rangers or law enforcement, who have more specialized skills in public safety.
“The biggest misconception is like we’re a park ranger, but we don’t have authority; we’re here just to create the atmosphere of hospitality, answer questions or just make sure there’s no safety hazard,” Clonts said. “We’re eyes and ears, but we’re not authority at the park, nor would we want to be.”
Instead, Clark County Public Works operates a volunteer program overseen by its communications department to “employ” park hosts. This arrangement started around five years ago, shifting away from having paid caretakers on staff.
Instead of pay, hosts such as Clonts — there are around 10 — receive free lodging and utilities for up to four years, McLachlan-Burton said.
Clonts, 45, started the gig with his wife Shelly in January 2019. The family, including four children between ages 14 to 19, has hopped around the United States with Clonts working in various types of jobs in Arizona and Texas. However, Clonts was drawn back to his home state; he grew up in Spokane.
“Part of it was doing something that gave us an experience as a family. We’ve been big on giving our kids opportunities to be a part of something different and bigger than themselves,” Clonts said. “Also, we wanted to live in a cabin in the woods. That was a dream come true.”
To pay for personal bills, such as internet, Clonts’s day job is a barista at a Battle Ground Starbucks. In all, he spends about two hours a day doing park host duties.
“As we’re in the park and around, we answer questions and help people, as well as making sure the atmosphere is good,” Clonts said. “Sometimes things come up — emergencies — we help first responders get into the right place and then step out of the way. That’s us in a nutshell.” Most often that applies to putting out fires properly and making sure guests abide park rules. It’s a day-use park, so making sure visitors are out by dusk is a part of the gig.
“You have people who aren’t used to a park; they have never actually started fires,” Clonts said. “They are making a fire on the side of the road under a tree. You go over there and tell them to put it out but not make them feel completely stupid. Sometimes, you deal with people who are upset; they come out here because they’re blowing off steam.”
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Then, the family retreats to the cabin, where the children are continuing their education online. Outside of cabin life, Clonts enjoys working for Starbucks, he said, because there are so many locations he could transfer to.
“I can control my schedule and go anywhere I want to,” he said.
As far as a plan for when his four years is up?
“Right now, we’re just focusing on helping our kids launch and get graduated. They’re all in Running Start; they’re all doing college at the same time they’re doing high school,” Clonts said. “Then, me and my wife are looking at what the next phase looks like for us.”