The Importance of Volunteers | Katie Toner - Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River

The Importance of Volunteers | Katie Toner

Katie Toner

The first time I visited Bristol Marsh Nature Preserve, I was surprised by its size. After driving through the narrow streets of Bristol Borough, admiring store fronts, I was not expecting the road to open up to a wide expanse of marsh. I parked, and upon leaving the car, was met with the sounds of busy life. People were coming and going, sitting under trees, talking, while birds called to each other in the branches above. Squirrels and groundhogs were braving open grass, looking for food until someone got too close, then retreating to the tree line. Behind it all was the Delaware River and the marsh. Those waters looked so tempting in the summer heat. a wooded trail along a waterway

Bristol Marsh Nature Preserve, rich in both natural and historic heritage, is one example of Heritage Conservancy’s preservation mission in action. Once the end of the Delaware Canal, the tidal marsh is currently home to over 300 aquatic and terrestrial species, including 8 rare native species. Monuments in the neighboring public park attest to the cultural heritage of Bristol, remembering the canal, honoring Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and paying homage to different waves of immigrants.

Bristol Marsh and its neighboring monuments stand as a testament to what was, is and could be as people fight for health, for black lives and for the planet. Heritage Conservancy’s dual mission links the preservation of history with the preservation of nature. These two elements work in harmony to create the identity of an area. Since 1958, Heritage Conservancy has facilitated the preservation of over 15,000 acres (and counting!) of land with historic and natural importance around Bucks and Montgomery Counties. Heritage Conservancy’s staff work hard to maintain these properties, but the dedication and enthusiasm of our volunteers are essential to our continuing success. As more people visit this stretch of the Delaware River, volunteers have been vital to efforts to keep Bristol Marsh clean and healthy.

One group of volunteers essential to the maintenance of this preserve is the Lower Bucks Environmental Stewardship Team (LBEST). This team was founded in 2017 and has been growing in strength ever since.  LBEST teammates come from a wide variety of experiences, but they share a common passion for conservation. Their focus is on Bristol Marsh Nature Preserve and the nearby Croydon Woods Nature Preserve, just a few miles southwest. Both nature preserves offer pockets of green amidst urban and suburban life.

As a team, LBEST volunteers participate in 4 major clean-ups per year, helping to fight back the spread of single-use plastics, cans, bottles, tires, and other refuse. Over the past three years, both nature preserves have seen major improvements thanks to their efforts. The underbrush, especially at Croydon Woods, has returned, providing more habitat and food for native animals. The larger impact of their work is harder to see, but no less meaningful. Located in the Delaware River Watershed, every piece of trash removed from the banks of The Delaware is a piece of trash that doesn’t have a chance to flow downstream and out to the ocean. Our LBEST volunteers may work locally, but their impact is much wider. Still, there is always more work to be done.

Many other Alliance for Watershed Education (AWE) Centers have volunteer groups as well. Each center offers unique and important ways to get involved, from gardening and trail maintenance to educating and administrative help. At John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, volunteers take on weeding and bring trash clean up to the water, kayaking in search of the trash that has already been washed into their marsh. At Tacony Creek Park, Stream Stewards monitor water quality in their free time while the Tacony Creek Park Keepers work to keep the park clean and welcoming. At Independence Seaport Museum, there are a variety of volunteer opportunities for history-lovers, similar to Heritage Conservancy’s docents at Aldie Mansion. You can even volunteer to erect roadblocks in the spring with The Schuylkill Center to protect migrating toads. Volunteering can even be as simple as following the AWE Centers near you on social media and re-posting their events. For many centers, volunteers help staff take their work to the next level, just as LBEST volunteers do for Heritage Conservancy. You can check out their websites to find the best fit for you. Despite the distance separating these groups and their work, volunteers at AWE centers throughout the Delaware River Watershed are actually working together to improve our region’s ecological health.

While personal health concerns due to Covid-19 have made it difficult for volunteer teams to come together to protect local ecosystem health, social media keeps us connected. For LBEST, that connection is our Facebook group and our new LBEST playlist on YouTube, including videos about the history, ecology and maintenance of the nature preserves. Within this playlist, there are two newly-made training videos, written and directed by, me, Katie Toner, the 2020 AWE Fellow.  great blue heron by marsh land

The fun of filming at Bristol Marsh is all the surprises. Over the course of a morning, a quiet scene might be interrupted by an impressive cargo ship or the graceful flight of a Great Blue Heron. Perhaps a family of ducks will emerge from the flowering arrow arum, or a pair of deer will come to the banks for a quick drink. Nestled between the river and the city, the marsh is full of special moments. Everyone has their own reasons for volunteering, but for me, the emotional fuel powering my work for the nature preserves is their unpredictable beauty.

Keep an eye out on the AWE website to find local opportunities at a center near you to get involved in the upcoming River Days celebrations and throughout the year. River Days events happen once a year, but volunteer groups like LBEST, the Tacony Creek Park Keepers, the Friends of Heinz and many others are busy all year long. Anyone who is not comfortable with in-person events at this time is encouraged to host a mini cleanup with their own quaran-team!

Anyone who is interested in becoming a LBEST teammate should contact Liz Barmach for more information and join Heritage Conservancy’s Lower Bucks Environmental Stewardship Team – LBEST Facebook Group. You can learn more about other volunteer work at Heritage Conservancy by visiting our website or get involved at other AWE Centers!