On a recent Sunday morning, a group of hikers paused on a heavily canopied trail to observe a bird perched high atop a tree, its body silhouetted against the rising sun. A brief hush took hold as binoculars focused in on the back-lit bird, loudly churring its morning song. Bodies shifted for a better view, until: "Yep, great crested flycatcher!"
This scene played out in Frenchman's Forest Natural Area, located just a three-minute drive from the bustle of human activity and development of The Gardens Mall and Interstate 95 in Palm Beach Gardens. Frenchman's Forest is one of dozens of natural areas that falls under the care of the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management (ERM).
It was also the most recent target of ERM's volunteer-driven cleanup activities. The day prior, a team of volunteers had removed more than 200 pounds of trash from the site. Included in the haul was the usual melange of snack debris and plastic bottles, plus heftier findings like an air-conditioning unit, rolls of carpeting and barbed wire. The goal is to rehab and preserve county lands as a healthy, natural destination for humans and native flora and fauna.
In 2012, ERM received 3,880 volunteer labor hours from more than 1,100 volunteers. These teams removed trash and invasive plants from natural areas, performed trail maintenance, and installed 14,000 native plants in environmentally sensitive areas. The amount of trash pulled from the natural areas in 2012 was a staggering 57,154 pounds.
Ann Mathews, volunteer coordinator for ERM, has spent 13 years working with volunteers to clean up Palm Beach County's natural areas. She's seen everything from shopping carts and mannequins to household appliances, computers, and vehicles hauled out of the protected lands. It can be dirty, sweaty, and grueling work, but Mathews said the volunteers' spirit of camaraderie, "dedication," and "enthusiasm" is evidenced in the end result.
"Magic happens when people work together to protect and preserve the natural environment," Mathews said. "Nature has a way of bringing out the very best in people."
ERM holds cleanup events about four to five times each month throughout the county (see a map of ERM natural areas to learn which lands are included). Those who are interested in signing up for a cleanup date can check the ERM calendar or email Mathews at email@example.com. The ERM Facebook page frequently posts updates from cleanup events, as well as other interactive tidbits, like images from ERM night-time "critter cams" and updates on ERM projects.
Looking for other ways to pitch in around South Florida? Keep America Beautiful's National Day of Action (in support of the Great American Cleanup) is planned for April 6. Keep America Beautiful offers a few solutions on how citizens can impact local problem areas.