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Daily Plant Masthead

Volume XXVIII, Number 5985
Monday, Nov 18, 2013

Natural Areas Volunteer In The Spotlight

Natural Areas Volunteers (NAV), part of Parks’ Natural Resources Group, is a service program that recruits, trains, and supports volunteers for ecological projects across the city. Natural Areas Volunteers help keep New York City’s forests, wetlands, and coastlines thriving by removing harmful invasive exotic vegetation; planting native trees, shrubs and grasses, caring for street tree beds and removing debris from our wetlands.

This marks the first time the Daily Plant will feature a Natural Areas Volunteer in the spotlight segment, which will occur on a regular basis moving forward.

Melissa Zavala

1. Why do you volunteer with Natural Areas Volunteers (NAV)?

I learned about the NAV program through the Parks Department electronic newsletter and was immediately interested in participating. While conducting fieldwork for my dissertation in anthropology at the Graduate Center-CUNY these past two and a half years, my research topic expanded from waste studies and environmental restoration (intersecting themes relevant to Fresh Kills, the central case in my study) to include a general focus on ecological maintenance in an urban setting. After undergoing the training for identifying invasive species and getting to weed in Alley Pond Park-Queens, I was hooked! Weeding and planting native species with the NRG team has allowed me to see first-hand just how invaluable the work of ecological maintenance is, and just how important parks are to cities. And beyond these broader reasons, the work of planting and weeding is just, in short, a lot of fun! I love the time spent outdoors, the sweet smell of NYC’s young forests, and the sense of accomplishment we get to have after the group has focused on clearing a given section.

2. What do you like most about volunteering with us?

I love that New Yorkers can connect with their parks in a very physical way by contributing to their maintenance. This work provides residents an opportunity to get to know the city in a more intimate way by providing care for the other organisms living in the city alongside us. Becoming more familiar with the wildlife sharing our living space has been one of the first steps in building a conservation ethic, which I think is an additionally positive outcome of the volunteer programs led by the Parks Department through the NRG team. Another thing I personally enjoy about volunteering that is maybe on more of an emotional level is the joy I feel seeing trees weighed down by vines spring upright when freed from the weeds that weigh them down!

3. What would you like to tell others about your experience?

I like to tell others just how gratifying this work is! Learning about plants, being in the middle of places so unlike the rest of the built city, where volunteers can be surrounded by the songs of birds and the fragrance of wild flowers, shaded by a dense tree canopy, is a rewarding and unique experience. The NRG team is always so welcoming and friendly that the work is made just that much more enjoyable.

4. Is there anything interesting about yourself that you would like to share?

I am trying to teach myself the basics of botanical illustration. Observation of the sort required to really see plants is much harder than it seems!

5. Anything else you would like to add?

Having grown up in NYC, I did not have access to a garden and my local park was (and is) a black top. I had no idea that gardening and getting my hands dirty would be possible given I live in an apartment, but with the increasing focus on improving the open spaces and habitats around the city, I have found an outlet for two of the things I really love: gardening and spending time outdoors. I have learned a lot about plants thanks to the Greenbelt Native Plant Center and the NAV program and I am thankful to the wonderful staff in Parks for all they do and how much they have shared with me.

If you or someone you know would like to volunteer with NAV, please visit our website, email us at, or call us at (212) 360-3318.

Submitted by Brian Aucoin
Director, Environmental Service and Training Programs


"Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far."

Thomas Jefferson
(1743 - 1826)

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