Director’s Note, July 2019

Photo of Karen Oberhauser, UW–Madison Arboretum director

Karen Oberhauser, UW–Madison Arboretum director (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison)

This month’s newsletter celebrates volunteers. I interact with volunteers every day that I’m at work and am constantly reminded that we could not do what we do without the incredibly generous donation of time by hundreds of people.

Every minute contributed by Arb volunteers is valuable—to the Arboretum, our visitors, and the environment. Because of our receptionists, every visitor who walks in the door is greeted by a knowledgeable, friendly person. I love watching the receptionists interact with visitors, answering a broad range of questions and engaging in conversations about everything from walks on our trails to hummingbirds to good books. These interactions help ensure that people have a positive experience here. Our stewards interact with visitors on trails and help us keep track of what’s going on all over the property. Bookstore clerks also provide friendly helpful encounters, and our Earth Focus Day Camp assistants ensure that children have a positive interaction with nature during their camp experience.

Volunteers also play a key role in maintaining and restoring Arboretum land, benefiting the environment in countless ways. Whether they come week after week to work in the Longenecker Horticultural or Native Plant Gardens, lead restoration groups as team leaders, or spend a few hours helping out with a work party, all of these individuals make a big difference helping us achieve our land care conservation goals.

Volunteers also provide key institutional support. Friends of the Arboretum put in countless hours organizing the annual Native Plant Sale, Luncheon-Lectures series, and field trips. These events provide learning opportunities for hundreds of people, and the income they generate supports a range of Arboretum functions. A volunteer librarian has catalogued all of the books in our research and public libraries, weeding out old volumes that are no longer relevant and providing advice on the ongoing functioning of these collections. Volunteers are working with staff members in the Arboretum archives, helping us identify and log historical materials.

Volunteers also participate in the research program, especially with our expanded focus on citizen science. Dozens of people monitor organisms and ecosystems on Arboretum property, collecting data on bees, monarch butterflies, dragonflies, stream quality, invasive earth worms, fungi, and many other things. Thanks to these volunteer citizen scientists, we better understand the Arboretum’s role as a home for natural communities, and we can provide scientific information to state and national programs looking at the big picture of species and ecosystem conservation.

Studies of people who volunteer for the environment, as our volunteers do, show that their most important motivation is making a difference. I hope that all of our volunteers know what a difference they make.

Another key motivator is learning—about the natural world in general, individual species or ecosystems and how to best support them, or in preparation for careers in natural resource fields. At the Arboretum, we strive to support learning through carefully developed training, both before people start volunteering and through ongoing programming. Our team leader and steward training programs are good examples of this training. Other recent examples include opportunities for staff and volunteers, such as first aid and CPR training as well as a workshop about creating a welcoming environment for diverse employees and visitors. In my own experience with citizen science, simply giving people an excuse to be outside observing nature results in learning that goes way beyond what we can teach from books or in classes.

Volunteering gives people an opportunity to meet and spend time with others who care about the environment. After a whole career in this field, I can say that nature lovers are interesting, friendly, engaging, passionate, and just plain fun to be around. This is definitely true of the Arboretum volunteers, and my hope is that all of our volunteers benefit from interacting with other volunteers, our staff, and Arboretum visitors.

Volunteers have been crucial to my work for a long time. For over two decades, I’ve coordinated a monarch citizen science program with hundreds of volunteer monitors and used data from several other citizen science programs to understand monarch butterfly populations. Volunteers are essential to inform monarch conservation efforts. It’s been an incredible honor to continue to work with volunteers in my position as the Arboretum director. Thanks so much for all that you do.

—Karen Oberhauser