By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
CHEROKEE, Okla. —
From crystal digging to bird watching, trails and educational programs, Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge provides memorable outings for more than 140,000 visitors each year, all possible in large part by the work of a dedicated group of volunteers.
Greg Birkenfeld, refuge manager, said the Salt Plains’ ability to offer public programs and maintain refuge facilities has been augmented significantly by the work of Friends of the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, a volunteer group formed in 2009.
Birkenfeld said the refuge has a paid staff of five people, including himself, responsible for managing the 32,000-acre refuge, its trails, visitor center, selenite crystal digging area and public programs.
According to figures provided by Birkenfeld, more than 40,000 people visit the refuge each year for crystal digging, and more than 100,000 people visit the refuge for birdwatching, trails and the automobile tour.
“With the small staff we have, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish what we do without the volunteer help,” Birkenfeld said.
He said the friends group in the last year has helped build two new observation towers, relocated a historical marker, assisted with conducting wildlife surveys, and helped stage public events.
“They’re a very important group,” Birkenfeld said. “They’re fairly new, but they’ve helped us out tremendously.”
Sid Landwehr, president of Friends of the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, said the group just wants to “help out where we can.”
He said one of the big areas where the volunteers are stepping in is the refuge’s visitors’ center. Volunteers are staffing the center on weekends in the summer, allowing the facility to stay open during the height of the refuge’s visitor traffic.
“That is important to us,” Landwehr said, “because it allows more people to come in and see the refuge.”
He said the volunteers enjoy staging public events that give more members of the public, particularly children, an opportunity to experience the natural beauty of the refuge and its wildlife.
One of the group’s largest events is Crystal Dig and Birding Festival in April.
Scheduled for April 26-28 this year, the event features three days of activities for kids and adults.
Landwehr said this year’s festival will begin the evening of April 26 with star gazing at the Great Salt Plains State Park campgrounds and a movie in Cherokee.
A full day of events is slated for April 27, including a crystal dig, with prizes; bird watching with the refuge staff; nature trail walks; dedication of a new trail; children’s activities and games including fishing, archery and woodcarving; exhibits from Oklahoma City Zoo; and a guided bird watch in the evening.
“It’s really a good family deal, and a good way to get out and enjoy the refuge,” Landwehr said.
Volunteers also help stage the annual Youth Fishing Derby, set June 1 this year.
Friends of the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge also are working to make sure the refuge and the wildlife are preserved for future generations to enjoy.
Richard Winn, vice president of the group, said the volunteers are working with Army Corps of Engineers on a plan to dredge the lake and rehabilitate marsh habitats.
The habitats support hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, including the endangered whooping crane, each year.
Winn said the lake has silted in over the years, a condition compounded by the ongoing drought. He said much of the marsh area has dried up, cutting down on the habitat for migratory water fowl.
“In a lot of places you only have a foot of water covering things under normal rainfall conditions,” Winn said. “With the drought, you’d have to hunt real hard to find a four-foot-deep spot in that lake.”
The volunteers are in the process of submitting paperwork to the Corps of Engineers to dredge from the dam, extending along the shore line and then working toward the center of the lake.
Winn said the eventual plan is to dredge the entire lake and use the dredged silt to build up walkways and existing islands.
But, he said, administrative processes involved in requisitioning a major Corps dredging project are considerable.
“It’s going to be a long process,” Winn said, “and the more we get involved in it, the longer it seems it’s going to take.”
But, Winn said, preserving the refuge is worth the effort.
“It’s important to me to try to rehabilitate the lake and keep the recreation and the wildlife around,” he said. “If you haven’t spent time watching the birds around the lake, you need to come up and check it out. A person just falls in love with it.”
For information on the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge go to www.travelok.com/listings/view.profile /id.6588.