Arboretum Restoration Team Leader Program Serves as a Model for Participatory Leadership

A group of people sitting on a large hill in early spring. The hill is densely covered in short, brown prairie plants with new growth just starting to peek through.

Restoration team leader training at a remnant prairie. (Photo: Marian Farrior)

For more than three decades, the Arboretum’s drop-in restoration work parties have engaged hundreds of community volunteers each year in restoring and caring for Arboretum land. During these Saturday morning work parties, volunteers remove invasive plants, prepare sites for prescribed burns, and do myriad other land management tasks. Crucial to the work parties’ ongoing success and popularity are the restoration team leaders who supervise them.

Restoration work party manager Marian Farrior and volunteer program manager Judy Kingsbury recognized that the Arboretum’s experiences developing the team leader program could help inform other environmental organizations. They collaborated with Arboretum ecologist Brad Herrick to write an article detailing the program’s evolution, structure, and conceptual frameworks. The article was published earlier this month in Ecological Solutions and Evidence, an open-access journal from the British Ecological Society.

Arboretum restoration team leaders are long-term volunteers who commit to two years of monthly work party leadership after completing an extensive four-month training program. When supervising work parties, team leaders do more than merely direct other volunteers in doing restoration activities – they also teach about local ecosystems, the land ethic, and the purpose of different restoration tasks. This informal education helps volunteers better understand restoration goals and practices, thus building ecological literacy in the community and fostering support for sustainable land management.

The team leader program began in 1992, based in an environmental education approach. Over the years the Arboretum has steadily worked to fine-tune the program’s design. These refinements include providing leadership and communication tools to help team leaders further develop community engagement skills, using logic models to improve program planning and evaluation, and incorporating social science frameworks to identify and address social nuances and complexities that can occur in a volunteer restoration leadership setting.

And what have staff learned from these gradual modifications? Based on formal and informal evaluations, the restoration team leader program is succeeding on multiple fronts. Along with fostering public participation in ecological restoration, it gives community members a way to have a positive, tangible impact on their local environment. Participants also feel that the program creates community and deepens understanding of ecological and social complexity. As a further testament to the program’s effectiveness, many team leaders continue volunteering after completing their two-year service commitment, and some have gone on to become restoration professionals. In addition, former team leader Amy Jo Dusick has helped co-design and co-teach the restoration team leader training.

Seven people walking through an expanse of short green vegetation on a beautiful summer day.
A field trip to Greene Prairie, a high-quality restoration site at the Arboretum. (Photo: Marian Farrior)

The Ecological Solutions article also discusses Restoration Managers Who Work with Volunteers (RMV), a community of practice based in Dane County. Marian and Judy, along with Bryn Scriver of UW Lakeshore Nature Preserve, initiated the group in 2018 to facilitate collaborative sharing and learning among restoration staff across various environmental organizations, ranging from friends’ groups to non-profits to local and state government agencies. Today, Marian, Judy, and Bryn co-lead the RMV community of practice.

With the publication of their article, Marian, Judy, and Brad hope that the Arboretum’s restoration team leader program and the RMV community of practice can serve as useful models for other restoration practitioners. Marian and Judy also wrote a companion piece that shares their motivations for writing the article. It is published in the British Ecological Society’s blog The Applied Ecologist.

To learn more about becoming a restoration team leader, contact Marian Farrior at (608) 265-5214 or

—Jady Carmichael, communications specialist