DNR’s volunteer stewards safeguard Michigan’s natural areas

At 20 state parks and recreation areas across southern Michigan, groups of volunteer stewards regularly roll up their sleeves to help protect and restore natural areas. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Volunteer Steward Program puts volunteers to work, typically removing invasive species, planting native species, and collecting native seed. The program holds about 200 workdays per year.


“In Michigan, we have a lot of really nice, high-quality natural areas within our state parks,” says DNR Natural Resource Steward Laurel Malvitz-Draper, who manages the program in southeast Michigan. “When an invasive plant moves in, it really disrupts the balance of an ecosystem.” Invasive plants can outcompete native plants for nutrients and moisture in the soil, which causes “ripple effects to insects, birds, and animals,” she says. “By removing invasive plants, we seek to restore balance to ecosystems so they can provide their normal functions or ecosystem services and provide habitat for a diverse array of native flora and fauna.”

Volunteers pull garlic mustard. Photo by Allison Torres Burtka.


At a recent workday at Highland Recreation Area in White Lake, Malvitz-Draper led a team of volunteers in pulling garlic mustard, a non-native invasive plant from Europe, out of the ground in wooded areas. She explained how the plant threatens native plant species, and how one garlic mustard plant can spread thousands of seeds—and those seeds can remain viable for up to 12 years in the seed bank (where they are stored in the soil).

Garlic mustard is allelopathic, meaning it secretes a chemical into the soil through its root system that hinders other plants from growing—including native wildflowers and other plants that serve as food for native insects and animals.


Malvitz-Draper says that keeping invasive species in check preserves and enhances Michigan’s natural areas, making them more enjoyable for visitors. And in a broader sense, biodiversity is essential.


“Simply put, species depend on one another for survival,” Malvitz-Draper says. “Maintaining ecosystems like wetlands is really important for filtering the water we need to survive and for water storage in the event of storms or severe weather. These are things we take for granted until those ecosystem ‘services’ are no longer available.”


On the west side of the state, the stewardship program manages critical dune habitat. Those areas are “a magnet for tourism,” says Heidi Frei, a natural resource steward who manages the program in southwest Michigan. The land “is part of the local economy and what locals depend on,” so it’s important to preserve and improve those areas, she says.


A cadre of volunteers


Volunteers are trained on their tasks for each 3-hour workday. They get to learn about local ecosystems, play a part in protecting them, and enjoy fresh air and exercise while they’re at it. Bill Burpee and his wife are regular volunteers who initially got involved “as a way of giving back,” he says. “Then we found out that being out in the woods is very pretty.”

Volunteers pull garlic mustard. Photo by Allison Torres Burtka.


The Stewardship Unit is part of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division, and it is funded through user fees (like camping fees) and the state's Recreation Passport. Frei notes that the DNR is responsible for close to 300,000 acres.


“There’s not enough staff to do this work on every acre of land that we manage, so volunteer participation is critical to help get this work done,” Malvitz-Draper says, noting that park staff often are focused on maintaining and running facilities such as campgrounds.


The program also helps educate the public about these issues, Malvitz-Draper says.


“Having volunteers engaged in this sort of activity is a win-win in terms of getting some hands-on work done in the field, as well as educating our citizens about some of the concerns or impacts to our natural areas.”


“Plus, it’s fun,” Frei says. “Volunteers enjoy working in these areas, and they get to know the park in an entirely different way” when they get involved in managing it. The volunteer stewards are “this legion of people that really care, and that we can call upon to assist us,” Frei says. At the same time, “they can be our ambassadors.”


The workdays usually bring in about 10 to 20 volunteers, about half of whom are regulars and half of whom are less experienced, Malvitz-Draper says. After being trained, some volunteers may also work independently—monitoring forests for diseases, surveying birds, redistributing beetles, monitoring insects, planting native plants, collecting native seed, and mapping invasive species.


The program, as it exists today, began in 2006, and has seen noticeable progress since then, Malvitz-Draper says. “Having worked in some of these sites for 10-plus years, it’s really exciting to see the impact and progress we’ve made—to know that we’re getting ahead of the seed bank and we’re really able to protect habitat for our native species.”

Volunteers pull garlic mustard. Photo by Allison Torres Burtka.


Over the years, “we’ve been able to broaden our scope and control invasive species in larger areas,” Malvitz-Draper says. That's especially true with garlic mustard. “Patches that used to take us several workdays now will just take us part of one workday.” She attributes this success to “the consistency of the effort from year to year.”


Park visitors might not know much about invasive plants, but they can tell the difference between a nicely managed area and one overrun with invasive species. When the native species are protected and the natural areas are well managed, “people want to recreate more,” Frei says.


It’s important to safeguard these areas because “it’s just kind of our job,” says Nicole Timmreck, a forestry major at Michigan State University who volunteered at the Highland workday. “In Michigan, we pride ourselves on our resources and natural areas. Why not take care of them?”

Find out more at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Volunteer Steward Program website.

This story is a part of a statewide Community Impact Series edited by Nina Ignaczak. Support for this series is provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Read more articles by Allison Torres Burtka.

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor in Metro Detroit. You can view her online portfolio here.
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