On a cold, wet, windy afternoon, a small cadre of volunteers carrying plastic coffee cans and cut-open milk jugs is working its way across a patch of ground at Fort Custer State Recreation Area, pinching the heads (which have gone to seed) off the top of the plants and dropping them into their receptacles.

“We do this in the rain and the snow and the sun, though I did have to cancel one day because of the high winds,” said Heidi Frei, a natural resources steward with the Parks and Recreation Division of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. “We don’t really have a large window to collect a lot of these species.”

Frei, who’s fairly new to the job, is leading the volunteer stewardship program in southwest Michigan. The program’s been around for years – mostly on the east side of the state — utilizing the help and handiwork of concerned citizens to maintain, improve and rehabilitate natural habitats in state parks and recreation areas.

On this particular day, Frei has enlisted the aid of a handful of Department of Environmental Quality volunteers to help harvest the seeds of a number of Michigan’s wildflowers.

“We focus on species of greatest conservation need,” said Frei, a veteran environmental educator, who joined the DNR after working for a non-profit conservation group. “We want to make sure we’re not getting black-eyed Susans from Oregon. We want to preserve the native genotype.

“Everything we gather in the park goes back into the park.”

Seeds could also be used to help restore other areas with similar soil types and climates, said Ray Fahlsing, who oversees the program for the Parks and Recreation Division. But the DNR is being very careful before it redistributes seeds, he said.

“We know the little bluestem (grass) that grows at Fort Custer is different from the little bluestem that grows on the dunes of Lake Michigan and is different than the little bluestem that grows on the clay flats down by Monroe.”

Volunteers are assigned a species that has been identified for them to harvest. As their buckets fill – or they find all the seed pods they can of a particular species – the containers are emptied into bags and labeled. The seeds will be taken to Rose Lake State Game Area, where they’ll be dried and prepared for the next phase of the program.

Some of the seeds will be planted in the nursery area at Fort Custer so when they’ve taken root, they can be transplanted elsewhere on the area as plugs. Others will go to a propagation area, where they’ll be allowed to mature and produce seed for future efforts. Yet others will be mixed together and broadcast in areas where prairies need mixtures of wild flowers.

Fort Custer is the second property where Frei has organized stewardship days to harvest wildflower and grass seeds. Earlier this year, she had a crew active at Grand Mere State Park (in Berrien County), where they collected the seeds from woodland sunflower, swamp thistle, shrubby St. John’s wort and bulrush.

“We took a remnant lake plain prairie and harvested seed from that to restore an area that was once a sand mine,” Frei said. “We have a number of native species that have been replanted from seed in the park.”

Frei said she was really pleased with the turnout for the harvest at Grand Mere – where the stewardship program is just beginning — as well as the turnout at Fort Custer, which she expected.

“Fort Custer has a long history of stewardship and volunteerism,” she said.

Volunteers range from school kids to veterans. Danny Massengale, a retired builder from Grass Lake, is a rock star among them.

Massengale started volunteering at state parks about seven years ago, he said, and he’s made it his business to try to attend as many events at as many park and recreation areas as he can. Last year, he was on every property that held volunteer stewardship days.

“I’m just 15 minutes from Waterloo (State Recreation Area) and I saw a notice in the paper that they were collecting there so I figured I’d go over there and help.”

He was badly bitten by the stewardship bug.

Massengale works on all manner of projects: removal of invasive species, replanting, harvesting seeds, photo-documenting the progress of projects, and redistributing purple loosestrife beetles – he’ll even go to a site in advance of a stewardship day to take GPS coordinates of areas that need attention. Because of his demonstrated commitment, Massengale has been designated by the DNR as a work leader on some projects.

“I love being out in the wild and I like volunteering,” Massengale said. “I like helping the state, helping nature, helping people.”

So the next time visitors to Fort Custer are taken by the sight of a patch of horsemint or downy sunflower or rough blazing star, they’ll have volunteers, like Massengale, to thank for the experience.

A calendar of upcoming volunteer stewardship workdays is available at www.michigan.gov/dnrvolunteers.

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