Without an army of volunteers, Pinellas County's environmental lands would become impenetrable jungles dominated by exotic, invasive species.
In no time, these lands that were preserved so residents could always observe native Florida would look nothing like native Florida.
Just how large an army is working at the task was revealed in a recent story in the St. Petersburg Times. Several hundred volunteers have been helping the county's Environmental Lands Division maintain the almost 16,000 acres for which it is responsible.
The sad fact is, even that number of people can scarcely scratch the surface of the work that needs to be done in the county's preserved lands. If more don't help, the battle eventually will be lost.
It is clear that government will not be able to take up the slack, at least not as it is currently configured. Because of budget cuts, the staff of the county's Environmental Lands Division has been reduced by 14 positions and now numbers only 34. And only a handful of those are assigned to full-time maintenance duties in the preserves.
The lands division now is hoping to grow its volunteer ranks by 10 percent each year to offset its staff cuts. All ages are welcomed — even youths from 12 to 18 can volunteer with parental involvement.
A variety of tasks is available to volunteers, from the hard but essential job of removing invasives such as air potato and Brazilian pepper, to leading hikes, doing research and staffing educational centers.
The problem, of course, with relying so heavily on volunteers is that they don't generally spend as many hours at the tasks as paid employees, and they usually insist on flexibility. Some, like Bill Brown of East Lake, can offer a half-day every week to the effort. Few spend as many hours as Reggie Hall, a volunteer who devotes much of his life to maintaining the Ozona Preserve in North Pinellas.
The combined effort of all those environmental volunteers led to recent recognition for the program from the National Association of Counties and the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.
The role of volunteers will be even more important in the next few years, as budgets continue to tighten and the pressure on Pinellas environmental lands grows. If you are over 12, and you have a few hours to spare helping to preserve these precious open spaces, consider signing up as an environmental lands volunteer. Call (727) 464-4761.