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Earth Team volunteers share expertise with agency

By Michelle Banks and Julie MacSwain

Dennis Meinert

Seven volunteers with Earth Team logged 510 hours of service in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for assisting NRCS staff on five soil surveying expeditions.

Molly Stetz, a graduate student in wetland ecology in New York, gives of her time and expertise to NRCS through the Earth Team program.

Molly Stetz, a graduate student in wetland ecology in New York, gives of her time and expertise to NRCS through the Earth Team program.

Seven volunteers with Earth Team logged 510 hours of service in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for assisting NRCS staff on five soil surveying expeditions.

Earth Team volunteer Dennis Meinert worked side-by-side with NRCS soil scientists to collect samples in remote areas of Minnesota.

When not in class, Molly Stetz volunteered her time to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, assisting with the agency’s efforts to put to work conservation practices on America’s private lands.

As part of National Volunteer Week, NRCS is celebrating the contributions of volunteers like Stetz that help the agency advance the conservation mission. Stetz is a member of NRCS’ Earth Team volunteer program, and she was selected for the National Service Award for her region.

Stetz, a graduate student in wetland ecology at the State University of New York at Brockport, donated more than 900 hours to NRCS through Earth Team.  

“Volunteers are an integral part of our agency,” NRCS District Conservationist Heath Eisele said. “In a one-employee field office every bit of assistance helps.”

Stetz worked closely under Eisele’s supervision assisting with many of the day-to-day operations of the office, including compliance reviews, highly erodible land slope measurements, construction checks and wetland plant identification.

“She helped us with so many different projects it was like having another NRCS position on staff,” Eisele said.

Similarly, a group of dedicated volunteers in Minnesota helped make it possible for NRCS soil scientists to collect soil samples in remote parts of the state.

Seven volunteers logged 510 hours of service in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for assisting Schmitt and other NRCS staff on five expeditions. The volunteers included Aaron Janz, Dennis Meinert, Timothy Nigh, Kyle Lilly, Kim Steffen, Jeffery Albers and Meghan Zenner.

“The volunteers’ wilderness skills were a huge time savings to the soil scientists,” said Larissa Schmitt, a NRCS soil scientist.

Like Stetz, this group was selected for the National Group Service Award from Earth Team. They worked in an area composed of a million acres in northeastern Minnesota, collecting soils data for 595,000 acres with more than 200 sample points.

“One of the biggest challenges is the remoteness of the area that can only be reached by either canoe or on foot,” Schmitt said.

The expeditions ranged from five to 10 days with average work days of 10 hours. Earth Team volunteers assisted NRCS soil scientists by navigating, paddling canoes, bushwhacking to sample points, carrying soil sampling tools, digging soil pits and recording soil data.  After work hours, volunteers cooked by campfire, chopped fire wood, hung bear bats and kept the camp clean.

Volunteers can help with almost any task that an NRCS employee does as part of his or her job duties. From soil sampling in the wilderness to preparing accounting paperwork, volunteers help NRCS get conservation on the ground. Even virtual volunteering is possible.

In the past fiscal year, more than 22,000 Earth Team volunteers donated more than 330,000 hours of their time to NRCS. These hours are valued at more than $7.3 million.

To read more volunteer stories or see how to sign up to be an Earth Team volunteer visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/EarthTeam.