A wetlands fixture
What does Jim Van Vlack enjoy about volunteering at the Crooked River Wetlands Complex?
"Everything," he says with a big smile. "I just love the natural sciences."
For the past year, Van Vlack has served as a wetlands docent — a greeter, guide and interpreter — and has become a vital part of the experiment.
"Jim has been a blessing to the wetland and is turning it into something wonderful," says Prineville City Engineer Eric Klann.
Van Vlack hasn't always been into science.
"I wore an Air Force uniform for 28 years," the 84-year-old says.
He worked in purchasing at the Portland Air Base in his hometown, and when he retired in 1981, he said he'd never sit behind a desk again.
"When Mount St. Helens blew, it just changed my whole world about science," Van Vlack recalls of the May 18, 1980, eruption. "I became a student of geology from that moment on. I love geology."
His journey into science escalated when his wife, Patti, became interested in birds, and the two of them got involved with the Natural Wildlife Federation. Their Sandy home sat on 2 acres, and they turned it into a Certified Wildlife Habitat.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife heard about it and wanted to know if they'd help set up a similar statewide program. For seven years, the couple volunteered with ODFW, setting up Naturescaping, a backyard wildlife program.
"I got interested in habitat, how natural habitat is developed, what creates natural habitat from the soil up," Van Vlack says.
They traveled all over the state for ODFW, visiting fairs and home and garden shows, teaching how to develop a backyard to attract wildlife.
They eventually sold their home in Sandy, and when they discovered Prineville, they knew that was the place to settle and moved here 33 years ago.
"It was central. We could go every direction," Van Vlack says.
After their ODFW work was done, the couple then took a 10-year job with the Sunriver Nature Center, designing a wildlife backyard.
Not ready to sit still, the couple then volunteered for four years with Oregon State Parks, doing natural sciences interpretive work at Harris Beach State Park in Brookings and as camp hosts at South Beach.
"Finally, I got tired of living out of a trailer," he chuckled.
Back in Prineville full time, he saw the city start digging for the wetlands project off of O'Neil Highway two years ago, and he inquired about it.
"The first time I met Jim was towards the end of construction of the wetland system," the city engineer recalls. "He was riding a pink bike and picking up garbage. He was very excited about the project and mentioned forming a volunteer group during my first meeting with him."
The City of Prineville built the 120-acre Crooked River Wetlands Complex, which includes 15 ponds. The park is designed for wastewater treatment – reclaiming water through natural processes and returning it cooled and cleaned into the Crooked River.
The goal was to save millions of dollars in future wastewater treatment for the residents. By relying on nature to treat water, rather than building a treatment plant, the city has also created a wetland park that serves as a sanctuary for birds, animals and fish.
Shortly after it opened last spring, Van Vlack took action.
"I saw all these educational possibilities here, so I approached Eric Klann," Van Vlack recalls. "I emailed Eric and a brief resume of what I had done, my background, and within a half hour, he wrote back and said, 'You got a job.'"
Since then, five other local retirees with history in the natural sciences stepped forward, signing up to be wetlands docents.
"His excitement for the project's educational opportunities has positively impacted the development of the project," Klann says. "We now have a great group of volunteers at the site that are doing wonderful things!"
The half-dozen volunteer docents provide public assistance, such as greeting and giving visitors a ride in the city-owned cart as they guide them through the 5.4 miles of trails. They educate the public by managing the bulletin boards and designing educational materials. The docents help pull noxious weeds, monitor the 182 bird houses, and help plant native trees and plants.
The volunteers are in charge of facility maintenance, such as emptying the dog waste cans and picking up litter. They also communicate with the City of Prineville, local schools and other nature groups.
Jason Wood, the city's head technician who works at the wetlands, says the project is not possible without the volunteers.
"They do the stuff that I can't or don't want to do," he says "Last week, we got a bunch of them together and pulled and cut weeds."
Van Vlack estimates that he spends 20 hours a week at the wetlands – more time in the nicer weather – and he did a lot of research at home in the cooler months.
But, Van Vlack says the wetlands needs more volunteer docents.
"We need a volunteer coordinator something terribly, terribly bad," he says.
They'd like more volunteers to be greeters, educators, writers and artists to develop activity books for children.
"We need somebody to assist writing grants," Van Vlack adds. "There is a tremendous amount of natural science money available out there in the world. We need somebody to ask for it."
He encourages retirees who are looking for something to do to check out the wetlands docent program.
"I can't think of a better thing to do than to volunteer if you have the time to do it," Van Vlack says. "The two main keys for a volunteer in entering a program is a love for the project and a very strong respect for the people they're working for."
Van Vlack also sees the value of the wetlands project.
"It has given the City of Prineville millions of dollars in savings to its residents in waste water disposal, a place for recreation, a natural science education facility for its school system, and a sanctuary for wildlife," he says. "It will draw visitors from afar to our beautiful city."
In his thousands of hours volunteering in Oregon, Van Vlack has found that Klann and his city staff and technicians are absolutely tops.
"They have been very generous in allowing the volunteers to establish a volunteer program to assist in the operation of the facility," he says. "The program is being designed by retired professionals with a love for the project."
Klann says it's Van Vlack's attitude that makes him such a valuable volunteer.
"I am very impressed with his attitude and what he gets done that positively impacts our community. … Jim gets involved, puts in the work and makes a positive change," Klann said. "He had a vision for the site from the beginning, and we are starting to see the vision come to fruition."