One hundred years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a law that would set into motion the protection of the natural heritage of the United States. The law created the National Wildlife Refuge System, which today is the most extensive network of protected habitats in the world. Refuges, located in every U.S. state, are among the last of the wild places left in America. These 542 safe havens for threatened and endangered species also preserve open space and help prevent pollution.
But in its centennial year the refuge system faces enormous challenges. Among the greatest threats are habitat loss from urban development, an invasion of non-native species, and chronic under-funding for species recovery, public programs and routine maintenance. With a shortage of paid staff, refuges have turned to volunteers. Thirty-six thousand volunteers contribute hundreds of thousands of hours each year. On the day VOA's Rosanne Skirble arrived at the Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, volunteers were hard at work, on the trails, in the bookstore and on a number of scientific research projects.
Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge is an island paradise at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. There is a diversity of landscapes from brackish tidal marsh and deciduous forests to crop and grasslands. But, according to manager Marty Kaehny, it is the 243 species of birds that put Eastern Neck on the refuge map. "We are on a migration route. All the birds that migrate from the north, the warblers, song birds and tropical [birds] come by the refuge. So, birding here is really good in the fall when they are heading south, many going all the way to South America. And it is also good in the spring when the birds are heading back north and they come back to the refuge. It is just awesome birding," he said.
Marty Kaehny came to work at Eastern Neck 10 years ago. He was welcomed by the one employee on staff, the maintenance man. He knew he needed more help, but his budget wouldn't cover any more wages. So he turned to boy scouts, students and senior citizens. "The refuge would go downhill fast without them," he said.
The volunteer program now includes hundreds of people from many walks of life. "They do it all. We don't have a biologist. They do our wildlife survey. They do facilities maintenance," he said. "They do trail maintenance. They build boardwalks. They build handicapped accessible trails, handicapped accessible observation decks. They are involved in all aspects of refuge management."
Former high school principal Howard McIntyre was one of the earliest refuge volunteers. He does trail maintenance and construction, and works on wildlife surveys. His passion is bluebirds. He is responsible for the 66 bluebird nesting boxes in the refuge. Every Thursday he makes the rounds.
McIntyre: I am going to tap on the box to let [it] know that I am here.
McIntyre: In this case, this is what I call a side loading box and I pull open the box and behold is a...
Skirble: Oh my goodness!
McIntyre: Watch because there are a lot of ants in here. This was a tree swallow nest, and you can see by the feathers and the grasses that this box had been successfully used. We had fledglings come out of there and after each nesting I clear the nests out because as you can see this nest has now drawn a whole family of ants, and they are scurrying now trying to preserve their eggs and so forth.
Skirble: So when you pull a nest out like you have just done, you are surprised.
McIntyre: I was surprised on this one.
Skirble: Is it that you are doing your job right and that the birds are using these boxes?
McIntyre: It is encouraging that they are using the boxes. Obviously I would prefer to have bluebirds in the boxes because the tree swallows are just so plentiful that you look down any of these [telephone] wires you are going to see hundreds of these [swallows].
Howard McIntyre charts the activity of each house.
McIntyre: We know what areas the boxes are. We know what success we are having in terms of nesting here. Hopefully we have added to the bluebird population. You figure [for] every bluebird that comes out of my boxes are birds that may not have found nesting areas. I would say we probably doubled the bluebird population here. The tree swallow population has obviously grown as well.
Skirble: Obviously, this is not nesting season. It is summer time. The fledglings are gone.
McIntyre: "Right, we are into August now. The nesting season starts in late May to the middle of July, ospreys still have some active nesting going on. Right now I am in the process of cleaning boxes out.
Skirble: You are house cleaning!
McIntyre: Exactly. This is my late summer house keeping.
In another part of the refuge, Marsha Polk, a 53-year-old retired civil servant, pulls on a pair of high boots and wades into a wooded marsh to check on a duck trap. For the past six weeks, she's been camped out in her [mobile home] by the refuge office, doing whatever's needed.
Polk: You get to learn so many new and different things by doing volunteer work. And that has been a real plus in this refuge. I am working on a grant that will provide public education cards - 40 of them to be exact on all aspects of this refuge.
Skirble: What are you going to take away with you when you leave?
Polk: A lot of knowledge, enjoyment. It has been amazing to meet the variety of people who are local volunteers here and you learn from those people also.
The volunteers become friends joined by shared interests. And, as Marsha Polk puts it, there's a joy in giving back, making the refuge a better place for wildlife and visitors. The payment, says volunteer Terry Willis, is the experience.
"I can remember one day we were capturing and banding the tundra swans and I got to go out in the water and take the swans up from under the net and carry the swans up and help with the weighing and all of that," he said. "And, that is just a precious experience that people would go other places to spend money to do things like that, yet we get to do it for free."
The Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge is engaged in numerous scientific studies and cooperative restoration projects with state and federal agencies. Manager Marty Kaehny says that much of the support for these ventures, like most of the programs in the refuge, comes from volunteers.