Many Michigan residents believe that spring officially arrives once the blackbirds or red-winged blackbirds return, or the saps and buckets appear on the maple trees.
Few people think of the other creatures that emerge from their winter slumber long before the trilliums begin to bloom and the morels make an appearance.
The creatures I speak of are volunteers.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has nearly 1,400 employees year-round and hires another 1,600 seasonally. These employees work hard to conserve and protect Michigan’s natural and cultural resources not only for today’s enjoyment, but also for future generations.
Most recreation enthusiasts are unaware that more than 5,000 volunteers work in tandem with these MNR employees each year to protect our resources. Volunteers are unpaid and are motivated by their connection to the natural environment. They are among the most dedicated members of Michigan’s “work force.”
For example, who brings snowshoes to clean a river?
Now nearing retirement, I worked for a long time as a volunteer coordinator for MNR’s Forest Resources Division. Twenty years ago, I was flipping through photos of projects when I saw something that surprised me.
A volunteer named Jim Heffner from Grand Traverse County had donned snowshoes to cross a muddy section of the river to clean up cans and scattered debris.
It was the day I realized the power and perseverance of our volunteers.
MNR volunteers are innovative. Jim had the foresight to bring snowshoes on a kayaking trip because he had to pass up beer cans that were in deep mud during the previous year’s cleanup.
He and many others volunteered with the award-winning Boardman River Clean Sweep group led by Norm Fred. Almost everyone in the Grand Traverse area knows of Norm’s work, including his thousands of hours floating and cleaning up rivers, as well as running a program that pays the homeless to help remove the waste illegally dumped on public lands.
Fred has volunteered for DNR programs for over two decades.
When asked why he started volunteering, his response was not surprising.
“Fishing the Boardman one day, I thought I had reached the end, but I found my beginning,” he said.
Individuals and groups from all walks of life – from Cubs to motorsports and hunt clubs – have heartfelt connections to the land and show their dedication by giving back.
They build, install and maintain bird nesting platforms, clear trails and plant trees. They collect native seeds for planting and work hard to help eradicate invasive species.
These volunteers not only oblige themselves, but drag their whole set of friends and family members wearing boots and gloves with pickup trucks and trailers.
The Lansing Motorcycle Club is just one example. Although most members live in Ingham County with club grounds in Missaukee County, they work on several projects across the state each year.
The club’s Hunt family and friends planted flowers and trees, demolished buildings, ripped out invasive plant species, maintained trails, stabilized shorelines and literally removed tons of trash from public lands.
Educators and caretakers
DNR volunteers are not only boots on the ground, but also an army of educators and eyes on the ground.
Volunteer recreational safety instructors teach our children how to drive boats and snowmobiles, as well as how to hunt safely. Year after year, these volunteers play a vital role in passing on the land and conservation ethic to future generations.
Volunteers commit for each season.
While some work in the winter months to keep the trails groomed for skiing and snowmobiling, activity really picks up once the snow clears.
A state park campground host entertains two young children with a craft while seated at a picnic table.
Volunteer activities continue into the spring with volunteers moving through the woods listening to the songs of male Kirtland warblers defending their nesting territories. These bird counts, conducted every five years, help monitor the successful recovery of one of Michigan’s most iconic wildlife species.
Other volunteers sit by the ponds to monitor frog and toad populations as they emerge after the winter snow recedes. Come summer, volunteers protect piping plover nests and educate visitors about these once nearly extinct birds. Fall brings popular harvest festivals to state parks, which wouldn’t be possible without our energetic volunteers.
Volunteer hosts at State Parks and Rustic State Forest Campgrounds spend a minimum of four weeks a year living on-site at DNR campgrounds. In exchange for a spot at the campsite, they greet guests, do light maintenance, organize coffee shops and activities for the kids, and help direct traffic on busy weekends.
When filling out surveys about the park, it’s not uncommon for park visitors to write that they want to come back and spend time with these annual volunteers. Ports and lighthouses also have hospitality programs.
Not surprisingly, these dedicated MNR volunteers befriend land managers and work side by side to care for the land and water.
Volunteers are more effective at recruiting others and correcting misconceptions about why laws are in place.
MNR volunteer coordinators often wake up to an email or voicemail about trees that have blown onto a trail or a new litter site that has popped up in the forest. It seems that the volunteers never sleep.
Often, volunteer groups take additional steps to fund and initiate improvements to public lands. Michigan’s All-Terrain Vehicle, Snowmobile, and Non-motorized Trail Programs are made up of more than 100 grant sponsors, nonprofits, and groups of friends who volunteer their time clearing, grading , grooming, shearing, writing grants, and managing DNR-approved building projects.
Many groups of friends raise and pledge funds for construction projects.
The Friends of the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years for trail paving projects and to fund maintenance operations on the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail. Friends of the Betsie Valley Trails also raised thousands of dollars to fund the conceptual design of trail paving and extensions in the Village of Elberta. Club members also maintain the Betsie Valley Trail.
The Friends of Porkies at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park raised $40,000 to fund the purchase of equipment for major emergency rescue operations at Michigan’s largest state park, located in the counties of Ontonagon and Gogebic.
The next time you are having fun in the forest, visiting a national park, boating or fishing, take the time to look around and consider the impact volunteers have had on your experience. .
Michelle O’Kelly, volunteer coordinator for MNR’s Parks and Recreation Division, said she realizes that rising gas prices this year will place an additional burden on our volunteers.
History shows that most are so committed that they will find a way to continue the work.
“If we all took the time to do something within 5 miles of where we live and work, we could accomplish great things,” she said.
Want to be part of the team? Check out volunteer opportunities at Michigan.gov/DNRVolunteers.
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