MASTERMIND: Jason Frenzel

Jason Frenzel could give a great elevator speech, the capsule project description beloved of entrepreneurs. He can call himself a hottie or a hothead, a professional weeder, even a man who fights alien invaders.

His job title is Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator for the Natural Area Preservation Unit in Ann Arbor's city parks department. His duties include managing controlled burns to foster biodiversity within Ann Arbor's 1,200 acres of natural areas, three-quarters of the city's park system. Natural areas, unlike parks, don't have recreational facilities. They're open for public use. Just don't look for swing sets or baseball diamonds.

Frenzel's alien-fighting skills come into play when non-native plants invade his domain. More like a poplar than a maple, with curly hair and a thumb ring, the 35-year-old appears to be a man of peace. However, garlic mustard (alliaria petiolata) is his implacable enemy, along with dame's rocket (hesperis matronalis), purple loosestrife (lythrum salicaria), narrowleaf bittercress (cardamine impatiens) and other invasive species.These prolific undesirables eventually overwhelm native plant species because fires in southeastern Michigan are uncommon.

Historically, Native Americans conducted burns for cultural reasons and to maintain hunting areas, Frenzel says. The fires were intentional. Fires from lightning strikes are rare here, unlike the far west.

Modern Michiganders have less enthusiasm for the process, which renews fire-tolerant native plants and prevents woodlands, wetlands, and prairies from becoming overrun with fire-intolerant plant invaders.

Ann Arbor's natural areas are burned on a rotating schedule. Each one has a prescription – a plan for restoration and maintenance. Burns take place over 100-to-150 acres a year, annually in some areas and every three-to-five years in others. Owners of neighboring properties are notified in advance. It's more difficult to let the squirrels know what's up. Ann Arbor has a few dozen endangered species.  

"Wildlife flies away, burrows, or hides in a log. The heat only goes down 1/4-inch below the surface. We also look for an area of refuge next to the burn area (that will not be burned)," Freznel says.

Frenzel's parents didn't raise him to make plant life go up in flames. They did provide lots of opportunities for him to go out in the woods and lakes, he recalls. That led to Michigan State University and a degree in tree-hugging (his word).

Thousands of volunteers (humans, that is) help keep invasive plants at bay in Ann Arbor parks, mostly with hand-pulling, a.k.a. weeding. Frenzel coordinates their activities, hosting a few hundred park restoration and clean-up days annually. About 2,000 people volunteer for Natural Area Preservation work days. Another 1,000 people work with the Adopt-A-Park program.

One objective is to restore natural areas to their historic integrity. The benchmark is 200 years ago, when land surveyors came through the state and took extensive notes. These, along with historic diaries and other information, make up the Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

"It records what's known about the area. Types of soil are usually consistent over millennia," Frenzel says. Beneath its cities, cherry orchards, and McMansions, Michigan isn't radically different than when the glaciers retreated 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.

"Parts of a lot of (Ann Arbor) natural areas are intact ecosystems. They're the highest, best quality areas," Frenzel says.

The Natural Areas Preservation program started 17 years ago. Frenzel has worked there for nine years. "I never expected to stay here that long. It's just about a perfect job for me. I appreciate the community engagement. There are tons of people who are overtly interested – we don't have to go knocking on doors," he says.

Park work days foster community when neighbors come together. Frenzel says the volunteers help him focus and prioritize, calling them his lens. Along with some super-volunteers, his office tries to create an autonomous volunteer system where everyone is welcome. Work is assigned according to ability, with jobs for all.

"A top-down organization could go away if the millage expires. If we can create actual social change, where advanced volunteers take it on on their own, it can continue indefinitely," he observes. He's also dedicated to assuring access to parks and natural areas for all city residents.

"The goal is a happier, healthier community focused around parks. Cooperation in the park extends psychological well-being,” Frenzel claims. “So does being outside and digging in the dirt. It's elemental to the human spirit, calming. It leads to more candid conversations with neighbors."

Looking ahead, the war against garlic mustard may be long-term. Its seeds can live in the soil for 12 years, Frenzel points out. On the other hand, he sees increasing awareness of garlic mustard as an invasive species among Ann Arborites.

Local groups make strong contributions, Frenzel says. He calls the local birding community "amazing." Rotarians have been very active planting trees. The Parks Department also has excellent corporate partners, including First Martin Corp. and English Gardens.

There's increasing cooperation between the Natural Areas Preservation office and other city open spaces that might be considered unnatural areas, such as golf courses.

"There have been difficulties working between some groups. In the past two years, we've had better relationships with the golf courses. They've made environmental moves over the long term," Frenzel says. "We've done burns at both golf courses. They're trying to move their roughs into more native plant stands. Golf courses are good for the environment because as big chunks of land, they're great habitat, especially for herons."

The city is also working on a forestry management plan that will create conversational opportunities and help manage the urban forest in a new way, he says.

In his previous job, Frenzel worked on creating environmental awareness with farmers through a state program on groundwater, understanding the environment, and human interaction. He gained great respect for farmers, saying, "In town, we don't give enough understanding to the people who raise our food."

Frenzel's professional and private lives run in close parallel. He spends his free time on food localization as chairperson of the steering committee of the Homegrown Festival, an annual celebration of local foods and community food security. This year's festival will take place on Sept. 11 at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. He helped organize the Homegrown Local Food Summit last March, a day-long program on creating a sustainable, fair, and more organic local food system. He's also part of the Stewardship Network, a locally based nonprofit aimed at working with individuals and groups to restore the environment.

"By 're-localizing' we can make a sense of community grow and be closer to Mother Earth," he says. "Over time, we can make amazing things happen as individuals and as a society."


Constance Crump is a master of the controlled burn. She is also an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine.  Her previous article was MASTERMIND: Peter Allen.

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

All photos were taken at Leslie Park Ann Arbor

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