Service in the Preserves

Clifton Gorge Sept 2019i

Clifton Gorge Sept 2019i

On August 4, ODNR’s campus in Columbus saw many unusual visitors, at least unusual for us. Dressed up and excited, rather than in blue jeans, muck boots, work gloves, and determined, they gathered in the Assembly Center to celebrate the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Hall of Fame Induction and Cardinal Award ceremony. Among the people and organizations that received the honorable recognition that day was Service in the Preserves, Columbus Audubon’s volunteer group dedicated to protecting Ohio’s nature preserves. ODNR presented the group with the 2021 Cardinal Award to recognize its outstanding contribution to Ohio nature conservation during almost 40 years of working with Ohio’s state nature preserves.

The story began in 1982 when Katryn Renard, a fresh graduate, member of Columbus Audubon, and a nature-lover inspired by the idea of giving back to nature, founded a program of work trips to Ohio’s nature preserves. The tree-planting trip to Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve turned out to be the beginning of a four-decade-long program.  Approximately monthly during all these years, volunteers worked in different nature preserves assisting preserve managers with maintenance, renovation, and construction work. So many projects have been completed over the years! So many thank-you notes from preserve managers have been received!

I like looking at the group’s pictures (some shots survived since the 80s pre-digital era!). Here they are standing in front of an observation deck that they just finished, a freshly painted gazeebo, a pile of garbage bags with trash collected from a preserve. Here they are burning brush piles, spreading gravel along a trail, carrying bridge parts to the construction site, puling garlic mustard, clearing invasive shrubs, and repairing a boardwalk. Seasons and places are changing. Sometimes it is sunny, sometimes it is raining, but I see happy faces and smiles on each picture.

If you visit a nature preserve in company with SIP volunteers, you will hear tons of stories and memories:

“When we built a bridge at Miller Sanctuary, it took 8-10 people to carry one beam down the trail to the work site.”

“Do you remember how a dead tree limb fell down at Davey Woods and bruised Ralph, the department chief at the time?”

“Here, at Rock Bridge, we had one of the best “Nature Break” moments when we spotted a five-lined skunk while cutting a new trail.”

“You know, sections of the boardwalk we built at Cranberry Island were carried over on boats”.

“We consumed more than 100 hotdogs during the last winter burn at Siegenthaler! Just joking!”

You might ask: “Why do these people work outside braving the elements, getting dirty, and working for free?” Well, the work-trippers, as the volunteers call themselves, have many reasons for joining the group and participating in the trips. They say they like visiting new places, learning about nature, and meeting new people. They value personal contribution and accomplishments. They like to be outside and to have good time. Comradery is an important reason as well. Over years friendship has evolved among the group members. They travel together, go camping and skiing, and support each other when needed. The group members get together for Christmas and summer potlucks, celebrate birthday parties, and enjoy each other’s company. Listen to them:

“It’s a special treat to spend an entire day, or weekend, at a beautiful site rather just visiting it for a couple of hours.”

“It feels so good when after a work day you leave behind a new bridge, a new trail, a new sign… You look back and you feel happy.” 

“I needed the outdoor work to balance the craziness of my office job.”

I started coordinating SIP work trips three years ago. Volunteering is such an important tradition. But does it have a future? After almost 40 years of service, the SIP group is aging. Old-timers retire one after another from work trips, and new members are uncommon. Sometimes, when I send out information about an upcoming trip, I fear the thought “What if nobody responds this time? What if nobody cares anymore?” I am relieved when I check my email later and read: “I will come”, “We’ll be there”, “I am in”.  Hooray! We will go for a work trip again!

If you are interested in joining SIP and helping preserve Ohio’s natural resources, check out our work trip schedule and sign up. To learn more about our group, or to contact us for questions, please visit the Service in the Preserves page on the Columbus Audubon website.

Service in the Preserves: Work Trip Schedule for 2021-2022

Sept 18 – Blackhand Gorge – removal of invasive shrubs

Oct 9 – Gott Fen – removal of invasive shrubs

Nov 6 – McCracken Fen – trash clean-up

Jan 22 – Siegenthaler Esker – woody vegetation management and winter burn

Feb 12 – Prairie Road Fen – woody vegetation management and winter burn

March 5 – Davey Woods – woody invasive species management  

Apr 23 – Miller Preserve – garlic mustard pull and woody vegetation removal  

May 14 – Rhododendron Cove – garlic mustard pull   

June 4 – Collier or Lawrence Woods – garlic mustard pull and boardwalk work   

Natalia Nekrasova is the Volunteer Coordinator for the Service in the Preserves program.