Reimagining Volunteer Engagement During COVID-19

Wisconsin Native Plant Garden in bloom

Wisconsin Native Plant Garden in bloom

A typical spring at the Arboretum brings many volunteer activities, such as steward training, civic-minded groups helping with gardening or restoration projects, a burst of participants for the Friends of the Arboretum Native Plant Sale, the annual recognition party, and the recruiting drive for Earth Focus Day Camp assistant naturalists. This year, most volunteers have been on furlough since March 16.

Over the last several months, employees and volunteers have been planning safe ways to resume aspects of the volunteer program and envisioning new ways to conduct conservation and restoration efforts, advance ecological science, and foster the land ethic.

Many elements influence these plans, including UW–Madison campus operations guidelines, local public health and CDC guidelines, risk assessments for volunteer positions, volunteer concerns and suggestions, reporting requirements for on-site activities, and prioritizing needs for engagement. Some decisions are made for us—so long as campus buildings are closed to all but essential personnel, the Visitor Center will remain closed, limiting volunteer access and opportunities.

One high-priority activity we hope to resume soon, which can be done solo and safely, is invasive species control. Restoration work party manager Marian Farrior has consulted with Arboretum land care staff and peers in other agencies to explore and understand options and best practices during COVID-19. Then Marian, the team leaders, and I met virtually to develop a new way to tackle invasive plant species while we cannot hold Saturday morning work parties.

We hope that team leaders will soon be able to work individually, in designated sites, to remove invasive species. Many aspects of this approach will be new. Team leaders will work solo or with a household member rather than leading community members who drop in at a work party. They won’t go to the lab building to gather tools, maps, and instructions. Instead, they will get maps and instructions via email, check in and check out for each shift via text message, and fill out an online report form on their work. And, they will have to bring their own snacks rather than enjoy cookies and juice from the supply bin!

Remaining unchanged will be clear communication between Marian and team leaders, careful attention to protecting native plant species while removing invasive ones, emphasis on working in high-priority sites, collaboration with land care staff to choose sites, and follow-up on the team leaders’ efforts. Most significantly, volunteers will once again be able to make a valuable contribution of caring for and restoring Arboretum lands.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided both impetus and opportunity to learn about and develop online volunteer orientation and training modules. Recently, Brad Herrick and Karen Oberhauser offered online trainings for dragonfly and monarch monitors. Marian Farrior created a virtual field trip to the Grady Tract and Greene Prairie as part of a Natural Areas Management Training for Restoration Team Leaders and DNR State Natural Areas volunteers. I am creating a new volunteer orientation that will be available virtually to anyone who becomes a volunteer. These new (to the Arboretum) ways of orienting and training volunteers will serve us well, even when we can come together in person.

Quilt by volunteer Kate Martin
Volunteer Kate Martin has been quilting during her time at home.

Even though many activities are on hold, we are planning for the day when they may resume. We will continue to develop criteria for re-engaging other volunteers in person, guided by UW leadership, health experts, and the volunteers themselves. In the meantime, we stay connected by sending out weekly updates to regular volunteers, which includes notes from director Karen Oberhauser, information about operations about the Arb and UW, weblinks for further learning about nature, and a natural-history based teachable moment (sometimes with illustrations by Arb research fellow Liz Anna Kozik). We also keep connected through phone calls and emails and share photos and stories of what people are up to while staying safer at home.

Some stewards and citizen science monitors have continued to volunteer because they could fulfill their duties solo, safely, and within the bounds of Safer-at-Home orders. Thanks to those who have kept an eye on the grounds and monitored species—thanks also to everyone who has stayed home. When it is safe to welcome you all back we will be thrilled to have you.

—Judy Kingsbury, volunteer program coordinator