You’re outdoors, you’re giving back, and you’re experiencing some of the great natural resources in your own part of the world: Meet volunteer stewardship.
Volunteer stewards are key to restoring and maintaining fragile native ecosystems across our region. Groups like the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, among others, are always looking for volunteer stewards to help care for parks and nature preserves, doing everything from maintaining trails to culling invasive species and planting wildflower seeds.
Spring and summer efforts for both organizations typically start in April with a simple, yet cathartic project: pulling garlic mustard, an invasive plant from Europe that multiplies quickly and easily in Michigan forests. After the Covid-heightened cabin fever of the past year, the sheer physicality of yanking these invasive plants from the ground in the name of the greater good sounds kind of satisfying.
“When conservation becomes a hands-on activity and you tell kids or adults or whoever that as long as they learn to identify the right plants when they can go in there with loppers and chop them down and stack up piles and stuff like that (that) they’re actually making a positive impact, you really do get a little bit of that release,” says Mitch Lettow, director of stewardship at SWMLC.
Last year, in response to Covid-19 restrictions and social-distancing measures, SWMLC held off on organizing group workdays to pull garlic mustard in the organization’s preserves, instead opting for a self-guided effort that turned out to be pretty successful, Lettow says. Preserves with clusters of garlic mustard were outfitted with instructional signs and photos for visitors to reference. Lettow estimates that about 500 large black garbage bags’ worth of garlic mustard plants were pulled during the season. Because of this success, the self-guided garlic mustard pulls are continuing this year. Group workdays are also being held again after last year’s hiatus.
Kelsey Dillon, a natural resources steward with the DNR, says she saw a rise in volunteer participants last summer as well, although her projects were in-person, limited to fewer than 25 people and socially distanced.
People “were wanting to get outdoors and help the environment more because they really turned to the parks and the recreation areas during Covid,” she says, “and so we saw a really big spike in interest for our volunteer program.”
This year the 25-person limit for workdays has been lifted, Dillon says.
Workdays for both organizations typically have participants ranging in age from 5 to 75. If the weather has been rainy and suddenly a workday is sunny, it will usually have more participants, Lettow says.
If pulling weeds isn’t your thing, both the conservancy and the DNR organize workdays for planting wildflower seeds to replace invasive species and bring natural spaces back into balance.
Lettow has been with SWMLC for more than 15 years, beginning his time with the conservancy group as a volunteer before being hired to do stewardship work in 2010. He landed the position as director of stewardship in 2019.
“Once I started to volunteer for SWMLC, I really felt like I was making an impact,” Lettow says. “A lot of environmental and conservation issues that you hear about, you feel a little bit helpless to change them, so I really like the way that made me feel.”
No Experience Required
For those new to engaging in outdoor stewardship, there are a couple of things to keep in mind: Be sure to wear clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty. And wear long pants, since it’s not uncommon to run into ticks and poison ivy.
“It’s like 100 percent a judgment-free zone,” Lettow says. “Wear your raggedy, hole-filled shirt that you garden or work around the yard or on the house or whatever in.”
Some projects require volunteers to bring only a pair of gloves, but others require extra equipment like loppers or handsaws to get the job done. Because of Covid-19, participants are encouraged to drive separately to meetups, bring their own equipment if possible and not share tools while working.
Also, they should be sure to know where they’re going, since SWMLC holds workdays in nearly 50 preserves in nine counties, including Barry, Calhoun and Kalamazoo.
However, experience is not a requirement to participate for workdays, Dillon says. “Our volunteers come from master gardeners and folks that worked in the restoration ecology field — so, experts — all the way to people just coming out for the first time that maybe have only hiked a trail once before,” she explains.
Setting Stewards Up for Success
Dillon says that each time she leads a workday she steps into the effort with the intention of setting volunteer stewards up for success.
“You get this really cool little packaged ecology lesson in every project with us, which is fun,” she says. “I love engaging with people and making sure they understand why they are so, so important to our volunteer program.”
Dillon says that she’s always sure to explain the ecosystem she and the crew are working in — her favorites are the dwindling oak barrens more common in the southeastern part of the state — and how the invasive species are affecting the area. She includes a thorough explanation of how to identify and properly remove the species — information that can be used in your backyard as well.
“We have a million things to do, “ she says, “so for someone to take time out of their day to come volunteer with us, I wanna make sure they know their purpose, make sure they know they’re valuable, that they know something about what they’re doing, that they can take those skills with them.”
The Land Gives Back
As much as volunteers enrich the natural area they work in, they walk away enriched by the land and by their co-stewards. Over the course of his eight years with SWMLC, Lettow says, other volunteers have taught him a lot about everything from best equipment and techniques for removing certain species to new perspectives on conservancy.
For Dillon, the friendships and bonds made during workdays are just as important as the conservancy work.
“Another thing I love to do is make connections among the volunteers, because you already have so much in common with everyone else coming out to this volunteer workday,” she says. “And Covid presented a little challenge for creating these connections among participants, but you just get to meet so many people that already share all of these amazing values.”