Volunteers help DNR battle invasive species at Belle Isle Park in Detroit

Volunteer Martha Gruelle of Detroit hauls cut shrubs out of the woods on Belle Isle.

Dec. 3, 2015

From schoolchildren to a physician’s assistant to first-time visitors and more, a group of nearly 20 volunteers recently helped the Michigan Department of Natural Resources battle invasive plant species at Belle Isle Park in Detroit.

Volunteer stewardship has been part of the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division program for about 20 years. Every year, volunteers put in around 10,000 total work days removing invasive plants, collecting wildflower seeds for planting, monitoring natural resource communities and documenting the presence of rare species.

Volunteer stewardship events are held at Michigan state parks and recreation areas almost every weekend, weather permitting.

A youngster works to cut the base of a shrubOn this sunny day in November, Laurel Malvitz-Draper said she was excited as she welcomed the diverse group of volunteer workers who would help remove invasive shrubs and trees from a wetland forest at Michigan’s newest state park.

“This is a wet mesic flatwoods, not a very common ecosystem, especially in Michigan,” Malvitz-Draper, a DNR natural resource steward, told the group. “Because we’re on the Detroit River, this area is more temperate. There are a couple of tree species here that you would expect to find growing farther south. Belle Isle is the very northern edge of their range — they’re kind of unique in these woods.”

Belle Isle Park became the state's 102nd state park in 2014 as part of a lease agreement with the city of Detroit. The 985-acre island park is located on the Detroit River between the United States and Canada.

Steeped in natural beauty and history, Belle Isle provides a wide assortment of educational and recreational opportunities and is home to a variety of attractions, including an aquarium, a conservatory and the James Scott Memorial Fountain.

Malvitz-Draper said she hoped the volunteers could put a dent in the common and glossy buckthorn and non-native honeysuckle encroaching on the flatwoods ecosystem.

“When this is a thicket of fully leafed shrubs, it looks overwhelming,” said Malvitz-Draper, who runs the DNR’s stewardship program in southeastern Michigan state parks. “It feels really manageable at this point.”

The difference was autumn.A DNR staffer shows volunteers how to identify invasive shrubs

“We have a two to three-week window when the non-native shrubs stay green and our native plants do not,” Malvitz-Draper said. “We’ve been waiting many months for this to be so obvious.” 

Malvitz-Draper distributed handsaws and loppers to the volunteers who planned to spend the morning removing the invasive plants.

Invasive species are non-native species that have the potential to become established and to spread widely and cause ecological or economic harm or pose a risk to human health.

They are a top threat to biodiversity because they compete with native species for food and habitat. Invasive species also can directly or indirectly kill or displace native species, degrade habitat and alter food webs.

The volunteers — who came from up to 90 minutes away to participate in the work bee project — included beginners, semi-professionals and dedicated environmental stewards who have been at it for years.

“I’m an outdoorsman and I just want to help,” said Dan Svacha, a physician’s assistant from Ann Arbor who chose the DNR stewardship day for his first visit to Belle Isle. “I saw this event online and thought it would be a good opportunity to get out and give back to the outdoors I enjoy. I love the Detroit River and I fish the Trenton Channel a lot, but I’ve never been here before.”

Three girlfriends who arrived together and spent most of the time working together removing honeysuckle, came from northern Macomb County to help out.

A youngster works to cut an invasive shrubLayla Sizemore, vice president of Leaders for Environmental Awareness and Protection at Oakland University, said the group has a longstanding project on the Clinton River, but just started working at Belle Isle.

This was her first trip to the park, too.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “I want to explore the whole island. It’s right in Detroit, but you feel like you’re in an oasis.”

Two fathers brought their children to help out.

Verlin Miller brought his son, Verlin, Jr., while Tom Zucchet brought his daughter, Jossi.

“I grew up in Detroit and I thought it would be a good idea to expose him to this and spend some time here,” said Miller, Sr., a Macomb Township builder. “I think things like giving back to the community are important.”

Zucchet said his daughter was having a great time and he was enjoying it, too. For her part, Jossi said she chose the Belle Isle project for three reasons.

“I want to help make the world a better place, this was interesting and you didn’t have to be 16 or older,” she said.

Miller said he is encouraged by “the beautiful job the state is doing here” in revitalizing the island and managing the park. Miller said that before the island became a state park he “didn’t want to come here anymore, let alone bring my family.”

Steve Powell, a retiree from Waterford who has been participating in stewardship projects for about a decade, said he’s “always enjoyed the outdoors – hunting, fishing, hiking and public lands.”

“This is a great resource, but it hasn’t been maintained. A lot of people think nature will take care of itself. Well, yes and no,” Powell said. “We’ve modified these ecosystems so much, if we just walk away from them, it’s kind of like leaving your trash behind. Even 25 years ago, people didn’t understand that. It’s an evolving art and science.”

Powell said he’s “kind of enthusiastic about the revitalization of Detroit,” including Belle Isle.

“This is a beautiful piece of property and people who come to Detroit should see it,” he said.

Volunteer Amanda Robichaud, who was making her second trip to Belle Isle, said she could see the progress that’s being made. She and Sizemore convinced their friend, Sarah Austin, a substitute teacher, to come along as well.

“It’s a lot of work, but I don’t mind doing it,” Austin said. “It’s a good excuse to get out on a Saturday.”

Volunteer Martha Gruelle of Detroit is regional director of the Wildlife Habitat Council, a nonprofit organization that works with corporations on making their properties wildlife-friendly.

Gruelle has been a longtime stewardship volunteer and a Belle Isle supporter well before the DNR stepped in.

“I first got into natural areas because I enjoyed being out in nature, but then I started to understand the significance of invasive species,” Gruelle said. “A lot of my day job I’m at the desk, on the phone, on the computer. I’m writing about these things and talking about these things, but here, I get to go out and do something about them.

“It’s a real joy to look at a woodland that used to be full of honeysuckle and see what it’s supposed to look like.”

Malvitz-Draper, who busily leads volunteer work crews in a handful of parks and recreation areas, said the three-hour work bee resulted in clearing invasive shrubs from about 2 acres at Belle Isle Park. 

For more information on this and other volunteer opportunities at state parks and other locations, visit www.michigan.gov/dnrvolunteers. Learn more about Belle Isle at www.bellislepark.org.