Many Michiganders believe spring officially arrives once the robins or red-winged blackbirds return, or the sap flows and buckets show up on maple trees.

Few folks ever think about the other creatures who come out of their winter slumber long before the trilliums begin to bloom, and morels make an appearance.

The creatures I’m talking about are volunteers.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has close to 1,400 employees year-round and hires an additional 1,600 seasonally. These employees work hard to conserve and protect Michigan’s natural and cultural resources for not only today’s enjoyment, but for future generations.

Most recreationists are unaware of the 5,000-plus volunteers who work in tandem every year with these DNR employees protecting our resources. Volunteers are unpaid and driven by their connection to the natural environment. They are some of Michigan’s most dedicated members of the “work force.”

Shining stars

For example, who brings snowshoes to a river cleanup?

Now nearing retirement, I have worked for a long time as the volunteer coordinator for DNR’s Forest Resources Division. Twenty years ago, I was flipping through project photos when I saw something that surprised me.

A volunteer named Jim Heffner from Grand Traverse County had donned snowshoes to walk across a mucky portion of the river to clean up cans and scattered debris.

That was the day I realized the power and perseverance of our volunteers.

DNR volunteers are innovative. Jim had the foresight to bring snowshoes on a kayak trip because he had to pass up beer cans that were in deep muck during the prior year’s cleanup.

He and many others were volunteering with the award-winning Boardman River Clean Sweep group led by Norm Fred. Almost anyone in the Grand Traverse Region is familiar with Norm’s work, including his thousands of hours floating and cleaning the rivers, as well as running a program that pays homeless people to help remove trash illegally dumped on public lands.

Fred has volunteered for DNR programs for more than two decades.

When asked why he started to volunteer his response was not surprising.

“When fishing on the Boardman one day, I thought I reached the end, but I found my beginning,” he said.

Individuals and groups from every walk of life – from Cub Scouts to motorsport 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 brush from trails and plant trees. They collect native seeds for planting and work hard to help eradicate invasive species.

These volunteers not only obligate themselves, but drag along their entire boot-wearing, glove-donning sets of friends and family members with pickup trucks and trailers.

The Lansing Motorcycle Club is just one example. Even though most members live in Ingham County with club grounds in Missaukee County, they work on multiple projects across the state every year.

The club’s Hunt family and their friends have planted flowers and trees, torn down buildings, pulled invasive plant species, maintained trails, stabilized streambanks and literally removed tons of trash from public land.


Educators and watchdogs

DNR volunteers are not just boots-on-the-ground, but also an army of educators and eyes in the field.

Volunteer recreational safety instructors teach our children how to operate boats and snowmobiles, as well as how to hunt safely. Year after year these volunteers play an integral role in passing down land and conservation ethics to future generations.

Volunteers are committed for every season.

While some work during the winter months to keep the trails groomed for skiing and snowmobiling, the activity really picks up once the snow clears.

Volunteer activities continue in the spring with volunteers who move through the woods listening for the songs of male Kirtland’s warblers defending their nesting territories. These bird counts, done every five years, help monitor the successful recovery of one of Michigan’s most iconic wildlife species.

Other volunteers sit near ponds to track frog and toad populations as they emerge after winter’s snows retreat. Come summer, volunteers are out protecting piping plover nests and educating visitors about these once near-extinct birds. Autumn brings the popular harvest festivals at state parks, which would not happen without our high-energy volunteers.

State park and rustic state forest campground volunteer hosts dedicate a minimum of four weeks a year to live on-site at DNR campgrounds. In exchange for a spot at the campsite, they greet customers, conduct light maintenance, host coffee hours and children’s activities and help direct traffic during busy weekends.

When filling out park surveys, it is not uncommon for park visitors to write about wanting to return and spend time with these annual volunteers. Harbors and lighthouses also have host programs.

Not surprisingly, these dedicated DNR volunteers become friends with land managers and work side by side to care for the land and water.

Volunteers are most effective at enlisting others and correcting misconceptions about why laws are in place.

DNR volunteer coordinators often wake up to an email or voicemail about trees that have blown over a trail or a new trash site that has popped up in the forest. It seems that volunteers never sleep.


Even further

Often volunteer groups take the extra step to fund and initiate improvements to public lands. Michigan’s off-road vehicle, snowmobile and nonmotorized trails programs are comprised of over 100 grant sponsor, nonprofit organizations and Friends groups that volunteer their time clearing, grading, grooming, mowing, writing grants and managing construction projects approved by the DNR.

Many friends groups raise and commit funds for construction projects.

Friends of the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail have raised hundreds of thousands over the years for trail surfacing projects and to fund maintenance operations on the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail. The Friends of the Betsie Valley Trails also have raised thousands of dollars to fund conceptual design of trail paving and extensions into 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 finance the purchase of equipment for important emergency rescue operations at Michigan’s largest state park, located in Ontonagon and Gogebic counties.

The next time you are recreating in the forest, visiting a state 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 the DNR Parks and Recreation Division, said she realizes that increased gas prices this year will put an additional burden on our volunteers.

History shows that most are so committed that they will find a way to continue the work.

“If all of us would take the time to do something within a 5-mile radius of where we live and work, we can accomplish great things,” she said.

Want to become part of the team? Check out volunteer opportunities at