This past year was a rough one, even for volunteers. Many nonprofit organizations canceled group volunteer projects to minimize exposure during the pandemic.
One local described that experience.
"I tried to volunteer last year, but COVID derailed that," said Jess Beauchemin, a volunteer with the Oregon Natural Desert Association. This year, she's signed up to do monitoring of Wilderness Study Areas in the Prineville District of the Bureau of Land Management.
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With risk levels changing, the curtain is partially lifting, and ONDA is ramping up its Independent Stewards program.
"We've had an Independent Stewards program since about 2015," said Renee Patrick, Independent Stewards program coordinator. "But it's been a very small part of what we offer and wasn't very well developed with resources to really help people feel comfortable going out by themselves to do stewardship or monitoring work on their own." With that, ONDA's Conservation and Campaign staff members began to explore options for utilizing volunteer help with on-the-ground projects, but in a different capacity than the historic group outing. "We went back to the beginning and dreamed big," added Patrick.
The staff created projects that would be rewarding and engaging to volunteers and could be completed on a flexible schedule. The stewardship team then spent five to six months building out the projects with partnering land management agencies, drawing up maps and collating project information. "We are even doing video tutorials and some of the projects have introductions from our agency staff explaining how the work will impact the on-the-ground aspect to a location or contribute to some greater goal," added Patrick. The goal was not just to create work projects, but to also relate these projects to the greater context of ONDA's conservation work and the protection of wild places in the high desert.
“To develop a deeper relationship with a place you’ve got to spend some time there.”—Jess Beauchemintweet this
ONDA launched its online volunteer registration form in late February, garnering over 350 interested people. The registration form provides ONDA staff with information about the volunteer's interests, availability, and even details such as comfort levels with remote camping, backcountry navigation or four-wheel driving—often major aspects of working in hard-to-reach places strewn across the desert. The goal is to match volunteers with the right opportunity.
Available projects revolve mostly around habitat and recreation monitoring, wildlife monitoring and stewardship projects in various locations such as Wilderness Study Areas in the Prineville BLM, Steens Mountain, Fremont National Forest, Alvord Desert and other spots in eastern Oregon.
One such project is the Fremont National Recreation Trail Work/Monitoring project, where volunteers adopt a 1-mile section of the NRT to do some light trail work and to record visitor use with the Recreational Impact Monitoring System app, developed by the Colorado Mountain Club and adapted for ONDA's work in Oregon. Another trail monitoring and stewardship project will focus on about 40 miles of trail through the Steens Mountain Wilderness.
Through ONDA's partnership with the Burns BLM District, staffers learned of unprecedented use of the Alvord Desert WSA in 2020. BLM staff related that the Alvord Desert was seeing impacts caused by three to four times what normal use was in previous years.
"Stewardship activities on the Alvord Desert will include dispersing fire rings (which are a safety hazard especially to vehicles, airplanes and land sailors), picking up trash, brushing out vehicle trespass incursions (beyond the allowed motorized use area), monitoring for negative wildlife interactions and handing out wag bags with included responsible recreation information," said Lace Thornberg, ONDA communications manager.
"I spend a lot of time hiking in the desert, and I've gained a great appreciation of the high desert in the last five years that I've lived in Bend," said volunteer Beauchemin. "This project gives me an opportunity to give back to the organizations that protect the lands that I like to recreate on, and I get to fulfill a deeper relationship with a place that I haven't spent a lot of time in."
Beauchemin has committed to visiting sites, twice per year, over the next three years, to provide some continuity even post-pandemic. "To develop a deeper relationship with a place you've got to spend some time there," added Beauchemin.