Cultivating Stewardship in Northern Minnesota

By Alissa Johnson

A new program in northern Minnesota aims to connect people with a passion for the northwoods with opportunities to take care of the places they love, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. A volunteer board of directors has been working with input from Forest Service liaisons to create a nonprofit organization called the Northwoods Volunteer Connection. The goal is to recruit, train, and manage volunteers to fill a much-needed stewardship need in Superior National Forest.

Volunteers with the National Smokejumpers Association work on the construction of the Centennial Trail on the Gunflint Ranger District. Photos courtesy Suzanne Cable, Superior National Forest.
Volunteers with the National Smokejumpers Association work on the construction of the Centennial Trail on the Gunflint Ranger District.
Photos courtesy Suzanne Cable, Superior National Forest.

“People ask me all the time, ‘How can I volunteer?’” said Bill Hansen, owner of Sawbill Outfitters on the eastern side of the Boundary Waters. “I have to say there isn’t much opportunity, and they’re always surprised.”

In lieu of volunteering, Hansen suggests that visitors pick up litter during canoe trips and leave things cleaner than they found them. But as the Vice-chair of the Board of Directors for the newly-formed Northwoods Volunteer Connection, he hopes to have a different answer next summer. By then, the Connection should be sending crews into the woods to complete stewardship projects like trail maintenance. “It’s obvious to everyone that there is more potential for volunteerism in the forest,” Hansen said. “The idea is to create a nonprofit organization that can be more nimble outside of the Forest Service and take on a lot of the organizational and logistical matters.”

According to Suzanne Cable, Assistant District Ranger for the Tofte and Gunflint Ranger Districts of the Superior National Forest (SNF), a robust volunteer program is in place within her districts. But it’s comprised of about 20 different organizations and user groups that focus on trail maintenance only, and the Forest Service interacts with each on a case-by-case basis. That leaves room for other types of projects and requires a lot of management. “The big benefit of a group like [the Northwoods Volunteer Connection] is a tremendous increase in efficiency because we maintain relationships with all those partners, which is great—they do good work. But it’s time consuming,” she said.

Prior to working in the SNF, Cable worked in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests in Idaho, where she was involved with two volunteer groups similar to the Connection: the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation, which helps the Forest Service steward wilderness and wildlands in Idaho, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation in Montana. When she moved to Minnesota, she was surprised that a similar group didn’t exist and quickly became a supporter of the Connection, serving as a liaison to the Board of Directors. “The work that volunteers help us do is all supplemental to the work we can get done with our own agency employees. Volunteer work doesn’t displace employees, but it is completely complementary, allowing us to get a lot more done than we could with our own employees and our own resources and funding,” Cable said.

It can also be a better experience for volunteers. Cable explained that by operating outside of the agency, these types of organizations can be more creative with things like recruitment. And because the organization will oversee training and volunteer development, it can expand into a wide variety of projects as the volunteer base grows. While most start with projects like trail maintenance, Cable has seen them branch out to include managing invasive species, helping with public education, and conducting citizen scientist projects. The result is a deeper investment in a place that’s already meaningful. “It’s about taking ownership in a place that they love and providing a good vehicle to show that love,” Cable said.

Hansen says that the Northwoods Volunteer Connection has been modeled off of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation and the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance, which has nearly 20 member groups focused on providing stewardship for wilderness areas. The idea is to create partnerships between communities, non-profit groups and government agencies in order to get volunteers into the woods. As the mission of the Connection states:

The Northwoods Volunteer Connection partners to create connections to recruit, train, and supervise volunteers. We work to be better stewards of the land by putting boots on the ground and tools in the hands of people that care about the northwoods of northeastern Minnesota.

“Our next order of business is to raise money to hire an executive director to professionalize the organization, to get it going and get organized,” Hansen said. He and the Board of Directors hope that will take place over the next several months so that on-the-ground projects can begin during the summer of 2016. “We’re going to be based in Cook County to start with because we got our start over here. It may be that projects are eastside-centric for the first year or two, but as we expand, we’ll be making efforts to include the whole forest.”

Within Cook County, however, and eventually across the broader northwoods region, the Connection will focus on all types of lands, including the BWCAW, the Superior National Forest, and private and county lands. Cable believes that broad focus will be one key to the organization’s success.

“They can recruit from a very large audience. If it was only the Boundary Waters, there’s a lot of love for that but it is a limited segment of the population that uses and enjoys it,” she said, noting that when you add people who love to snowmobile, cross country ski, bike, and camp to the mix—or even people who are concerned about factors like invasive species—the organization’s reach grows. “That really diversifies the pool of people you can reach out to.”

When the Connection is up and running, projects will be selected to complement what Forest Service employees do as part of their jobs. Hansen refers to it as building a firewall between traditional Forest Service jobs and volunteers, using a simple litmus test to choose projects: Without volunteers, would it get done? If the answer is no, then it’s the perfect fit for the Connection. The organization will also stay away from advocacy. “This organization is not an advocacy group and it’s not political, and we won’t be lobbying for more funding. It’s strictly to get boots on the ground and people in the woods doing work,” Hansen said.

The result will be a partnership that greatly improves stewardship of the land and fills a much-needed niche.

To get involved with the Northwoods Volunteer Connection, email board chair John Wytanis at jwytanis@gmail.com

Read more in Wilderness News Summer 2015

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