LA PINE — During the summer, thousands of people travel to Paulina Lake, nestled in a caldera in the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, to fish, hike and bike in the shadow of Paulina Peak. However, for Mike and Teresa Norris, visiting the national monument isn’t about recreation, but rather about leaving it cleaner and more beautiful than it was when they arrived.
Five days a week from June through September, the husband-wife team roams the 13-mile path along the scenic caldera, armed with trash bags, gloves, extra water, first-aid supplies and pointed sticks for picking up garbage. Each day, the couple fills three to four 32-gallon garbage bags with dog poop and trash they find along trails and at campsites.
“We feel that the forests, and all of our public land, is our heritage, our legacy, for each generation to pass onto the next,” Teresa Norris said. “And if we don’t keep them clean and nice, they possibly won’t be there for the next generation.”
Both Teresa, 63, and Mike, 61, were taught to leave Oregon’s public lands looking pristine when they were growing up. Mike Norris grew up in Prineville, while Teresa was raised in Portland.
They’ve been married 37 years and split their time between their Bend home and their RV.
“And we might not have made it that long if we hadn’t started volunteering,” Mike Norris joked.
The volunteerism began in earnest several years ago, when the couple bought a motor home after Teresa’s job in admissions at St. Charles was eliminated, and they decided to travel across the Western United States.
“We always ended up picking up garbage everywhere we go,” Teresa Norris said.
During a visit to the Apache Trail, in the Tonto National Forest in Arizona, they were particularly disgusted by the amount of trash they saw scattered along the historical stagecoach trail. When they discussed the problem with the ranger on staff, he said the U.S. Forest Service district was too understaffed to make a dent. So the Norrises offered to step in and pick up some of the debris.
“We want to be the people who make the difference,” Teresa Norris said.
Mike Norris added that they have been camping at Paulina Lake for years and really appreciated the tranquility of the area, which became part of Newberry National Volcanic Monument in 1990, within the Deschutes National Forest. However, the couple became similarly frustrated by the dog poop and other nuisances they found along the shore of Paulina Lake last summer and decided to take matters into their own hands. Without any support, direction or reimbursement from the Forest Service, the pair began picking up trash, repairing docks and making other fixes around the lake.
“We picked up enough garbage last year that we could have blocked the road off with it,” Mike Norris said.
One afternoon near the middle of last summer, Ralph Saunders, lead park ranger with Newberry National Volcanic Monument, came across the couple fixing a dock along the lake using their own tools. After talking, the couple agreed to become official volunteers.
“They’re (volunteering) in a way where they’re making things better,” Saunders said. “They want to give meaningful contributions and make positive changes.”
Saunders said he works with around 15 regular volunteers near Paulina Lake who handle everything from working at the visitors’ center to giving interpretive talks. They represent a fraction of the small army of volunteers that work in the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests. Stacey Cochran, community engagement director for Discover Your Forest, a nonprofit partner for the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests, said nearly 2,100 people volunteered for more than 68,000 hours at the two national forests in 2016.
She said would-be volunteers typically fill out an online application to tell staff where they would like to help out and what sort of work they would like to do. From there, volunteers meet with rangers to refine what they’d be doing and go through up to 70 hours of training before they begin.
“We really want this to be mutually beneficial,” Cochran said of the volunteer program.
With tight budgets, Cochran said both national forests rely heavily on volunteers to help out with tasks, including trash pickup, that full-time staff might not be able to focus on.
While their passion is still picking up trash, the Norrises have an expanded role this year. In addition to trash collection, the couple helps fix fallen guardrails along trails and other small issues from a harsher-than-normal winter, leaning on Mike’s background in construction. He added that part of the job is chatting with visitors to campgrounds and day-use areas, making sure they have permits and aren’t violating any rules of the monument.
“There are more rules to a national monument, because it’s even more special,” he said.
Not every aspect of the role is fun. The couple frequently comes across full diapers and bags of dog poop, which they bury or carry to a dumpster.
“I think everybody thinks (the bags) just disintegrate, or there’s a little fairy that comes and picks them up,” Teresa Norris said. “We find them everywhere, and they are really rancid.”
Still, the couple agreed the caldera’s natural beauty and tranquility makes it worth preserving. As more people visit, they said keeping the national monument clean will come down to better education, and a willingness for visitors to clean up after themselves.
“If everyone just picks up one piece, it would just make an amazing difference,” she said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7818, firstname.lastname@example.org