Volunteers support recreation activities at Florida state parks

Park volunteer Mike Jeakle, left, of the Village of Tamarind Grove, and park services specialist Jeremy Sweeney pull invasive natal grass at Lake Griffin State Park.

Park rangers’ helpers kept busy to preserve Florida’s nature spots.

Florida State Parks volunteers gave a total of 1.1 million hours in 2019-20, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Those numbers are about even with the year prior, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 93,000 hours were spent volunteering at tri-county parks, including 5,537 hours at Lake Griffin and 23,342 hours at Silver Springs.

Statewide, many park managers see their volunteer base as an extension of their paid staff.

Lake Griffin State Park manager Mark Knapke is no exception.

“We couldn’t meet the standards we do at any of the parks without the volunteers,” he said.

The volunteer work done at Florida’s state parks is equal to the work of 559 full-time employees and is valued at more than $31.5 million, according to the Florida State Parks Foundation.

At Lake Griffin, the most visible efforts of the park’s volunteers are their guided kayak tours, where they lead park guests along the Dead River Marsh that leads into the lake.

“It’s time-consuming, but we love it,” park volunteer Linda Morrison said. “There’s something about watching people’s faces light up when you say something about the birds or how the gators live. It just warms your heart.”

While the eco-tours remain on hold because of COVID-19 concerns, volunteers haven’t stopped working to support the park.

Some of it is happening behind the scenes, said Morrison, of the Village of St. James.

For example, Friends of Lake Griffin State Park, the citizen-support organization that raises money for park projects and equipment, and organizes volunteer efforts, recently launched a redesigned website developed by volunteers.

The friends group also purchased new kayaks for rentals to phase out aging equipment.

Two upcoming park projects of note also need volunteers.

The first involves readying a new fitness trail near the picnic pavilion that will feature nine wooden exercise stations, Morrison said.

Another involves moving lumber for boardwalks along the spur trail, a swampy hiking trail that takes park visitors through damp and rugged terrain.

Even when Florida’s state parks closed to the public in March because of the pandemic, volunteers were still at work.

Knapke said Lake Griffin’s volunteers helped with improvements to the kayak launch area and the spur trail during that time. Most state parks, including Lake Griffin, reopened in May following guidance from Gov. Ron DeSantis.

And even though the guided kayak tours aren’t back yet — they’re likely on hold until early 2021 — Knapke said he’s working on a plan for bringing back pontoon boat tours.

He said he’s grateful for what Florida’s state park volunteers bring to the table.

“Lake Griffin is a small park, and at times we struggle like other parks to recruit volunteers,” Knapke said. “But we’ve been really fortunate to get some good ones.”

The volunteers’ work not only helps to educate the public about Florida’s environment, but also educating themselves, said Marc Munaretto, another Lake Griffin volunteer.

“It gives me a chance to sharpen my knowledge of the flora and fauna, and provide teachable opportunities for people who don’t know anything about Florida,” he said.

Helping people learn something new is what keeps Munaretto, of the Village of Collier, interested in supporting the park.

“I like when people say, ‘Now I’ll be able to recognize what I’m looking at,’” he said.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.