A volunteer's refuge: Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge recognizes the 'critical' impact of volunteers

Ken Mattson looks forward to counting the loons every summer.

"It gets me out on the water," he says, and that's one of his favorite places to be.


The longtime Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge volunteer has taken part in the annual loon monitoring program there for about the past 10 years. With paddles in hand and binoculars at arms' reach, he kayaks and canoes the refuge's waterways to look and listen for loons.

He loves it, and he's not alone—a large group of volunteers assists with the loon survey every year. Their efforts help the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources track changes in the loon population to ensure a successful future for Minnesota's state bird.

The loon survey is just one of many important conservation efforts that go on at Tamarac, and volunteers like Mattson are invaluable. Janice Bengtson, Tamarac's volunteer coordinator, calls volunteers "critical" to Tamarac's operations, public programs, and conservation and wildlife management goals.

The refuge enlisted the help of about 200 volunteers last year, including some occasional helpers and about 80 "core" regulars, Bengtson said. They assisted with everything from leading tours to cleaning ditches, tagging wolves to parking cars. Some volunteered for a single event, while others helped out throughout the year, in multiple ways.

Mattson, for example, not only partakes in the annual loon count but also collects water samples from Tamarac lakes to have them tested for clarity and pollutants, and he conducts AIS (aquatic invasive species) boat inspections at public accesses within the refuge. In addition, he maintains a portion of the North Country National Scenic Trail, keeping it mowed and clear of downed trees (the trail—the longest of its kind in the nation—runs through the refuge).

He, like all the other volunteers, puts in as many hours as he wants to. The times and durations of volunteer work at the refuge vary, depending on the assignment, and volunteers can choose which assignments to take on. Bengtson said she works with volunteers to match their interests to the needs of the refuge.

Right now, those needs are great. Tamarac is short on volunteers, and it's coming up on busy season. May through October is the refuge's most popular time for tourists and visiting school groups.


To recruit more help, the refuge is holding an informational gathering at the Detroit Lakes Library on Thursday, May 10 at 7 p.m. Bengtson and a few current volunteers will be there to answer questions and talk about the volunteer opportunities available at Tamarac. Everyone is welcome and refreshments will be available.

An 'awesome volunteer program'

"We have an awesome volunteer program," Bengtson said. "It's a very active, very fun group; very dedicated."

She added that, "There are some programs here that would not happen without them—especially our interpretive programs. The 'Wild Wednesdays' kid program, for example, is totally managed and run by volunteers. And the environmental education program requires volunteers, too—sometimes in May alone we have 1,000 kids come out."

Kindergarteners and third grade students from area schools visit the refuge at three different times of the year to partake in seasonal outdoor activities like snowshoeing or hiking, and to learn about everything from tree identification to beaver dams.

Dave Schneider, a retired teacher-turned-volunteer who has been leading educational programs for kids at the refuge for the past 9 years, said he's heartened when he hears students say things like, "This is the greatest day of my life" or "I wish I could do this every day." Seeing the students' joy and excitement about the natural world is one of the biggest reasons he keeps coming back to volunteer season after season.

"I've always liked working with younger kids," he said. "I like being outside, and I love seeing kids outside. I also encourage the kids to try and get their families to get outdoors."

Schneider used to teach first grade in Frazee, and he'd bring his classes to Tamarac every April to plant trees for Arbor Day. Today, he's not only a regular volunteer at Tamarac but is also a member of the volunteer committee and is on the board of the Friends of Tamarac, a nonprofit organization that exists to support the refuge.


Becky Aarestad is another Friends of Tamarac board member and longtime volunteer. She was introduced to Tamarac in the 1980s, when she was a campfire leader for some local girl scouts. She remembers the girls bringing their own "fire in a box" and cooking hot dogs over the open flames. They identified trees, birds and other wildlife while they were at the refuge, earning beads and badges for their achievements.

Later, in the 1990s, Aarestad returned to Tamarac as a volunteer, and began to lead tours. After a hiatus, she came back again about five years ago and has been a "regular" ever since. She's worked in the gift shop, put together a newsletter, studied gypsy moth populations, planted trees and more. She's also still leading tours. Tamarac offers 2-hour interpretive tours every Thursday in June, July and August at 10 a.m.

"We know all about Tamarac—all the ins and outs, all the secret places," she said of herself and the three other tour guides, half-jokingly.

The guides offer tour-goers a basic overview of the refuge and then talk about some of Tamarac's lesser-known attractions and historical connections, like its influence on trumpeter swan populations or ties to the early logging industry. They try to engage tourists in conversation, hoping to learn new things themselves from knowledgeable visitors.

Meeting new and interesting people is one of the motivating factors for Tamarac's "regulars." Friendships are formed between volunteers, and sometimes even between volunteers and visitors, Schneider said, not to mention another important factor—"it's fun."

For more information on volunteering at Tamarac, attend the informational session on May 10 or contact Janice Bengtson at 218-844-1756 or janice_bengtson@fws.gov.


National Volunteer Week

April 15-21 is National Volunteer Week, an opportunity to celebrate the impact of volunteer service and the power that volunteers have to build stronger, more resilient communities. It's a time to shine a light on the people and causes that inspire others to serve, and to recognize and thank volunteers who lend their time, talents and voices to make a difference in their communities.

More about Tamarac


Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge was established by Congress as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife in 1938. Located about 18 miles northeast of Detroit Lakes, the landscape is characterized by rolling forested hills interspersed with shallow lakes, rivers, marshes and shrub swamps. Red and white pine intermingle with aspens, old growth forests, jack pine barrens and tamarac-spruce bogs.

The refuge has a nearly 43,000-acre footprint and is one of more than 545 units in the National Wildlife Refuge system. Visitors can observe and photograph wildlife, take a self-guided auto tour, hike the trails, fish, hunt, bike or horseback ride, cross-country ski and snowshoe, pick nuts or berries or mushrooms, sign up for an interpretive program, watch a wildlife movie, picnic and more.

The refuge is located at 35704 County Highway 26 in Rochert. The visitor's center is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, year-round. Weekend hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, mid-May through October, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. the first and third Sundays of the month in November through mid-May. For more information, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/tamarac.

By Marie Johnson 

Source, images, credits & more information: DLOnline