Get out, help out: Volunteers can make difference at state parks

Published 9:48 am Thursday, March 20, 2014

DNR Volunteers at Muskegon State Park. (Photo submitted by DNR)

DNR Volunteers at Muskegon State Park. (Photo submitted by DNR)

SAWYER—Signs of spring’s approach are finally appearing, and with them come more opportunities to get out and enjoy the natural resources that draw so many visitors to this area. Forests, lakes, streams and dunes offer a wide variety of nature-based experiences for both adults and children.

Residents can enjoy those resources while helping to preserve them by participating in volunteer stewardships days at state parks with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s a good way for people to get out and help out,” said Heidi Frei, resource steward for the stewardship unit of the DNR. “It’s beautiful out there right now. The landscape is just fantastic.”

Frei oversees volunteer stewardship work projects almost every weekend throughout the southwest Michigan area. One of those activities will take place at Warren Dunes from 1 to 4 p.m. on March 30.

Warren Woods and Grand Mere are also nearby state parks where folks can get out in the fresh air and help the DNR with habitat preservation activities. The calendar of volunteer workdays on the Michigan DNR’s website,, provides a listing of currently scheduled activities.

“We actually work pretty regularly at Warren Dunes, Warren Woods and Grand Mere,” Frei said. “We’re out there at least once a month.”

While many of the scheduled activities take place on weekends, Frei said that the DNR has many opportunities that volunteers can do at other times, and they always welcome assistance from the public.

“We have a number of different opportunities for volunteers. We have projects where volunteers are doing surveys for us or mapping invasive species,” Frei said. “We can always work with volunteers that are willing and ready to learn.”

The March 30 project at Warren Dunes is designed to remove invasive plant species from the dunes in order to preserve the natural habitat there.

“If these invasive species get too thick, that can limit the native plants and reduce cover from things like bloodroot or trillium, the wildflowers that people like to see here” Frei said. “We also have some very unique Beech-Maple forests there that need to be protected.”

Among the species that need to be eradicated are Japanese barberry, non-native honeysuckle, autumn olive, multiflora rose and garlic mustard.

“One plant that we’ll be targeting is the Japanese barberry. It’s thorny, and its form is very distinct. It really has the ability to take over the dunes,” Frei said. “We’re trying to get control over it so we don’t lose our trillium and the forest understory.”

Although one might assume that it’s too early to be finding non-native plants, Frei said that the task can actually be easier when there are not a lot of leaves to block the view.

“Even though there was snow cover on the ground, we were out a few weekends ago, and we were able to get a lot done,” Frei said. “If you know what you’re looking for, with all the leaves gone, you can get a clearer picture of what’s out there. It’s easier to see what you’re looking for.”

The DNR will provide volunteers with the necessary tools, and they will educate volunteers so that they know what to look for.

“A lot of people catch on right away. We provide assistance, instruction and tools,” Frei said. “We’ll have some work gloves for people to borrow if they don’t have a favorite pair of their own.”

Of course, if volunteers have their own gloves, they are welcome to bring them, too, but they should be clean and free of mud and “hitchhiking seeds” that could actually contribute to the problem of invasive species in the dunes.

Frei also recommends dressing for the weather and wearing warmer clothes. Even on warmer days, long sleeves and pants should be worn to prevent scrapes from branches. More information about what to wear and what to expect can be found on the DNR’s website.

Helping the DNR with habitat restoration is an activity that almost anyone can do, including children.

“I always encourage bringing kids, but parents are the best gauge for what their kids can handle,” Frei said. “I think it’s a great learning opportunity. Anything we can do to get kids away from the TV and the cell phone is a good thing. I’ve had kids as young as four years old helping. They handle it pretty well. I’m always amazed by the kids.”

Groups are also welcome to participate.

“We have everything from scouting groups to retirees to service clubs that come out and help,” Frei said. “We encourage large groups to give us a call beforehand so we can plan for the right amount of equipment and so on.”

People who want to help out while witnessing spring’s first bloom can contact Frei at (269) 685-6851, ext. 147 or at with their questions about volunteering in southwest Michigan parks.