For nearly a quarter of a century people have gathered on the last Saturday of September at national parks, beaches, wildlife refuges and other public lands, big and small.
Unlike other times of the year when they visit those places to hike, camp, fish, boat or just relax, that Saturday is a time set aside to encourage people to work and give back as part of a nationwide effort.
National Public Lands Day was first set aside for that purpose in 1994 by the National Environment Education Foundation.
On Saturday, one group of volunteers gathered at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, east of Seymour, to complete several projects.
They began their work by removing two rotting stumps in the nature discovery area near the visitors center at the refuge at 12985 U.S. 50 East. The playground-styled area is made from materials commonly found in nature for children to experience.
They then moved to several smaller tasks including completing some maintenance around the visitor center. That work involved removing soil from the base of the bird watching area behind the visitors center to prevent rotting of the building materials.
Finally the group moved into the interior of the refuge to collect ironweed seeds.
Ironweed plants, a tall perennial plant with bright purple flowers, are native to Indiana and attractive to butterflies including painted ladies and tiger swallowtails and most importantly the Monarch, which has seen a significant population drop to the point it is being considered for addition to the endangered species list.
These seeds will be sent to universities and used to help cultivate plants. Ironweed also has been used medicinally to treat stomach pain and general bleeding for centuries.
“(Park Ranger Donna Stanley) and some of the other volunteers do a great job of explaining what we are doing and why it is good for the environment,” said volunteer Barb Zupan.
The Plainfield woman and her husband, Dennis, attended the event in part, so they could earn some of the required volunteer hours for their master naturalist certification, which is offered at the refuge through the Indiana Master Naturalist Program.
Other volunteers, including Kristyna Luna, had much simpler reasons for volunteering.
“I love wetlands, Muscatatuck and volunteering,” the Columbus woman said. “It just makes you feel so much better knowing you did something for nature.”
Luna said she understands why some people might not have the time or drive to volunteer, especially for something that can’t say “thank you.”
She still feels it’s important, however, to give back to Mother Nature, considering everything humans take from it.
The Zupans said they believe in volunteering, especially given the state of the government right now.
“There’s not a lot of money from the government to go around, so it’s important to help out with our natural places,” Barb Zupan said.
The Zupans said they value Muscatatuck because of the access it gives the public, especially through its roads, to those who can’t hike.
Both spoke highly of the refuge and said they had plenty of other good reasons to volunteer there.
“You get a free hat,” Dennis Zupan said.
“We like watching waterfowl and many of the birds land here,” Barb Zupan added.
Stanley said National Public Lands Days isn’t the only day volunteers help out at the 7,724-acre refuge, which was established in 1966. The Muscatatuck Wildlife Society sponsors many activities.
In fact, people often stop by and ask if they can help out.
“We find stuff for them to do,” Stanley said. “We can always use volunteers, not just on National Public Lands Day.”