Lt. Gov. Calley, DNR staff take hands-on approach to volunteer effort at Hoffmaster State Park
Sept. 11, 2015
Michigan’s state parks have long depended on volunteers to help with stewardship programs that boost the quality of the parks experience for visitors. Volunteers regularly help remove invasive plants or gather seeds from wildflowers to improve the habitat.
The Department of Natural Resources recently enlisted the aid of a different set of volunteers to go to work on a longstanding problem at many state parks: fixing deteriorating infrastructure.
The DNR estimates state parks need nearly $300 million in infrastructure improvements, but has an annual budget of only $5 million to $10 million for that purpose. Enter Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and the Michigan Community Service Commission – the state’s lead agency on volunteerism – who issued a challenge to DNR employees through the state’s volunteer campaign, “Let’s Do Something, Michigan.”
Calley requested 15 DNR staffers volunteer to join him and some of his staff for a work day at P.J. Hoffmaster State Park in Muskegon. The job was to refurbish the stairs and walkways that allow visitor access to the park’s magnificent dunes. DNR employees were up to the challenge, as the requested number of volunteers was met quickly.
The staircase, which traverses the park and allows visitors to take in the scenery without causing erosion or habitat damage to the dunes, is in regular need of repair, said park manager Patrick Whalen.
“The stairway is used by a lot of visitors, and it’s deteriorating,” he said. “This work needs to be done periodically, and it’s too big of a job for the park staff to do in a short period of time all at once.”
Volunteers replaced planks, stairs and rails along the lengthy walkway.
“The work we’re doing today involved about $1,000 in lumber alone,” Whalen said. “It took us a whole day’s work just getting ready for today. To do this project without volunteers, you’d be looking at three staff members for five days.
“This was a good project for the number of volunteers we had, and a huge accomplishment.”
Calley said the Let’s Do Something campaign was designed to “encourage people to find a group that’s making a difference and be part of it.” This project fit perfectly, Calley said, not only for the volunteers, but also for him, too.
“I love spending time out at state parks anyway – particularly at Lake Michigan,” he said. “A lot of the work that needs to be done isn’t realistic for volunteers, but replacing deck boards on an existing walkway – fixing the infrastructure that makes the lake and the dunes accessible – is a perfect fit for volunteer activity. And the park staff’s on hand providing the expertise to make sure the job gets done correctly.”
Calley said the event at Hoffmaster was the first time he challenged a group of state employees to get directly involved in a project.
“Wherever we go we try to include state employees, but this is the first time we’ve done this in conjunction with a state agency,” he said. “There isn’t always an opportunity for this kind of work within state agencies.”
Volunteers came from all DNR divisions, though the bulk of them tended to be office workers.
“I’m kind of a blue-collar guy in a white-collar job, so this is a nice change of pace,” said Steve DeBrabander, who manages the DNR’s grants sections. “It’s a good workout, carrying tools and planks up that 90-step stairway with plenty of turns, which is a trick with a 12-foot plank on your shoulder.
“But this is a great place to be – a good place to roll up your sleeves and do something with your colleagues.”
Sharon Schafer, chief of the DNR Finance and Operations Division, agreed.
“We need to get out of the office more often,” she said. “I take every chance I can get to do physical labor. I like construction, I think it’s fun. And now I can bring my family here and show them what I did.”
Some of the workers were really at home on the project. Scott Zajac, a fisheries technician at Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery, regularly works with his hands.
“I had the day off; it looked like a neat project, so I thought I’d lend a hand,” he said. “I’ve never been here so it’s a chance to get out and see something else in my neighborhood.”
Bill Boik, who works on waterways projects with the DNR Parks and Recreation Division and was a licensed builder before he went to work for the department, said he was returning to his roots.
“I have skills that I can’t use in the office,” he said. “They won’t let me use power tools at the office.”
DNR Director Keith Creagh, who worked alongside Calley for much of the morning session (there was an afternoon session, too, after a short lunch break), said he appreciated the volunteer spirit of the DNR staff.
“It’s hard work, but everybody’s got a smile on their face,” Creagh said. “Working with a broad base of volunteers can make a lot of difference in cutting back on our backlog of state infrastructure needs. It multiplies our resources. Our challenge is to be more innovative in leveraging volunteers.”
There will always be a need for volunteers – even if $300 million falls from the sky tomorrow.
“No matter how many resources we put into something, we can always take it further with volunteer activities,” Calley concluded.
To learn more about Let’s Do Something, Michigan, visit www.somgovweb.state.mi.us/GovRelations/MichiganAmbassador.aspx. To find out about volunteer opportunities at Michigan state parks and at other DNR recreation sites and programs, visit www.michigan.gov/dnrvolunteers. For more on the Michigan Community Service Commission and volunteer opportunities locally, visit www.michigan.gov/volunteer.