Friends Group Still Going Strong

By D. T. Clark

 

Twenty-five years ago, a group of people who had been loosely organized to act as a liaison between the USDA’s Forest Service staff for the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and local citizens, set their sights on a slightly different goal and took on the name, “Friends of Mount Rogers.”

 

The Friends’ mission statement says the group is dedicated to promoting “the appreciation and enjoyment” of the surrounding recreation area, and to helping take care of it.

 

Those are pretty lofty goals in today’s world, which is faster-paced, more globally oriented, and more economically challenged than a quarter-century ago. How do people manage to take on – or keep – extra responsibilities, and why would anyone do that?

 

Louise Tilson
Longtime member of Friends
Friends members during the 'Celebrate Public Lands' event

The reasons are as varied as the people who participate. Pat Conklin has been an active member almost from the beginning, and she traces her desire to be a true steward of the land to her childhood.

 

Born and raised in the local area, Conklin remembers that her family played and worked in the outdoors, and that she was taught to take care of the forest as well as to find reward in it. She was also a Girl Scout, and enjoyed the many outdoors activities, adventures, and duties

 

“There’s just something about the outdoors, about the mountains, that restores me,” she says. “And I want to be able to continue to experience that, and to have others experience it, and in order for that to happen, we have to take care of it.”

 

Over the years, Conklin has felt the squeeze of other demands on her time and energy, but even though she has eliminated some “extra-curriculars” from her life, she has not abandoned the Friends of Mount Rogers. “It just continues to feel important to me,” she said.

 

Beth Merz, Chief Ranger for the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, sees the Friends group as a way for citizens to “receive by giving” to their natural and cultural heritage. “There’s something for nearly everyone in this effort,” she said. Among projects that have been taken on by the Friends over the years are hands-on work on trails and other physical infrastructure; host duties at the various campgrounds and historic sites; interpretive programs; and helping organize and present various public events such as the Naturalists’ Rally and Public Lands Day.

 

“Last year,” Merz explained, “the number of volunteer hours donated to us totaled more than 15 person-years. That’s the equivalent of 15 full-time employees.”

 

And it’s not that if people weren’t volunteering, the USDA would hire paid employees to do the work. “No, it would just mean that the work wouldn’t get done. In the current economy, there are simply no funds to fill established but currently un-filled staff positions, much less create new jobs.”

 

That means that, at the exact time that more and more people are finding stress-relieving, re-energizing recreation in the National Forest, there is less funding and fewer staff to assure that visitors’ experiences in the wild are of the highest quality. Luckily, volunteers have taken up some of the slack.

 

Another long-time member, Louise Tilson, said that her own involvement with the Friends of Mount Rogers began with one of the founders, Marge Pedigo, who was an employer and friend. “I wanted to spend time with those people who were already involved,” she said. “They were so nice, and interested in the same things I was.”

 

But Tilson explained that while her involvement with the Friends may have started “only” 20 years ago, her love for the land has much deeper roots. “I grew up on a farm, helping with the work,” she said. “My father taught me to respect the land and to treat it well, so it would take care of us.” She also was a dedicated birdwatcher before she joined the Friends. “I wanted to help protect the habitats the birds needed,” she recalled.

 

That means that, at the exact time that more and more people are finding stress-relieving, re-energizing recreation in the National Forest, there is less funding and fewer staff to assure that visitors’ experiences in the wild are of the highest quality. Luckily, volunteers have taken up some of the slack.

 

Another long-time member, Louise Tilson, said that her own involvement with the Friends of Mount Rogers began with one of the founders, Marge Pedigo, who was an employer and friend. “I wanted to spend time with those people who were already involved,” she said. “They were so nice, and interested in the same things I was.”

 

But Tilson explained that while her involvement with the Friends may have started “only” 20 years ago, her love for the land has much deeper roots. “I grew up on a farm, helping with the work,” she said. “My father taught me to respect the land and to treat it well, so it would take care of us.” She also was a dedicated birdwatcher before she joined the Friends. “I wanted to help protect the habitats the birds needed,” she recalled.

 

But she noted one more reason people would enjoy participating.

 

“If you want to belong to a group that is effective and that makes a difference that you can see, the Friends is the place for you.”

 

It turns out, questions about how and why people should join volunteer organizations, and how to keep an active membership, are ones that every organization is having to face, and the Friends of Mount Rogers is no exception. Although the current members are steadfast in their desire to help and belief in the cause, most of them are, frankly, getting a bit old to do many of the projects they used to. Everyone agrees that more members would not only lighten the load for current members, but would also allow the group to take on additional projects or develop existing projects.

 

“Tell them, ‘come on in!’” Tilson said with a laugh. “We have a good time, and we meet the most interesting visitors, and we take such pride in presenting our land to guests.

 

“And we need them.”

 

And that may be the best reason of all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *