Young volunteers eagerly tackle the tough jobs at state parks

AmeriCorps volunteers plant wiregrass in a longleaf pine forest at Singletary Lake State Park.
AmeriCorps volunteers plant wiregrass in a longleaf pine forest at Singletary Lake State Park.

By and large, the young people involved in the national AmeriCorps program are strong and eager, and it’s a good thing.

The nine AmeriCorps volunteers who dropped their bags at William B. Umstead State Park six weeks ago have since been going nonstop at some of the hardest labor the state parks system has to offer. Today, they’re close to finishing a labor-intensive project to hand-plant more than 13,000 clumps of wiregrass among the longleaf pines of Singletary Lake State Park. They’ve already spent days cutting and hauling small hardwood trees from the longleaf stand. And, during the past weeks, they’ve dug fire lines for prescribed burns and cut invasive species out of the forests. In the midst of all this, they spent a week battling a woodlands fire that closed Pilot Mountain State Park after a prescribed burn escaped fire lines.

This is the third year the state parks system has qualified to host an AmeriCorps volunteer team. The federal program for men and women age 18-24 dispatches teams throughout the states for up to 11 months to perform about 1,700 hours of community service. The current team is on its last mission before disbanding next week. To a person, they’ve said they value the experience but are ready to go home.

In the past, teams have camped for weeks at some of the parks. For the most part this year, they were housed in group cabins at Umstead, Hanging Rock and Singletary Lake where heat and warm showers were welcome. Last year’s crew had a particularly arduous time. Just a couple days after arriving, they were dispatched to a contentious fire at Chimney Rock State Park.

Volunteers man fire lines at Pilot Mountain State Park.
Volunteers man fire lines at Pilot Mountain State Park.

“The partnership with AmeriCorps has hopefully been a valuable experience for the young volunteers and it has certainly been valuable forthe state parks system,” said Lewis Ledford, state parks director. “It increases our efficiency and gives us more options in the managing the parks’ natural resources.”

The team’s tenure in state parks was arranged by our natural resource management biologists. With the help of park superintendents, they lined up worthwhile projects and arranged logistics – and managed to teach the volunteers why their work is important.

The Singletary Lake effort significantly stretched a $2,500 grant from Quail Unlimited to establish warm-season grasses in areas off-limits to hunting. The wiregrass groundcover is an important link in the longleaf pine ecosystem, favored not only by quail but by the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. The state park in Bladen County has two known colonies of the rare birds, which demand a longleaf pine habitat of widely spaced trees and sparse undergrowth.

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