“I am getting so sick of the amount of plastic in my life,” Poppy Benson said as she put on a bright yellow safety vest on Friday.
She and three volunteers not only disposed of plastic during the first day of the Kenai Wildlife Refuge’s spring cleanup event, but they also cleared other litter from the roadway.
This is the first cleanup event in two years, since last spring the refuge canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Visitor Services Park Ranger Leah Eskelin said in an earlier interview.
Eskelin said on Friday that around 40 people had signed up to help with litter collection for the full weekend. Anything the volunteers can’t clear by Sunday evening will be taken care of by the refuge staff.
Benson is both the vice president and outreach chair for the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuge nonprofit organization, which is involved with all 16 of the state’s refuges that manage over 75 million acres of land.
Friends supports Alaska’s refuges through direct support — volunteering and financial contributions — as well as educational outreach and advocacy. Since the organization isn’t federally funded, Benson said they are able to, and often, take stances on different environmental policy issues.
During former President Donald Trump’s administration, Benson said the Department of the Interior looked to ease restrictions on trapping in the state of Alaska. Friends pushed back on this.
“It was both a public health menace … and it wasn’t compatible with the purpose of the refuge,” she said.
Apart from political involvement, Friends volunteers regularly attend refuge-hosted events like this weekend’s. One of the most “crazy” projects they’ve been involved in, Benson said, was gelding horses in Unalaska.
The organization is dependent on funding through grants, donations and memberships.
Marie McConnell, another volunteer at Friday’s garbage cleanup, said she joined the group nearly 10 years ago.
“What I didn’t realize when I signed up was how much I’d learn about the refuge,” she said. McConnell has attended many of Friends’ educational seminars.
Lin Kennedy and Dan Musgrove, both longtime central peninsula residents, also came to help on Friday because of their appreciation for the refuge.
The Friends group has over 200 members statewide, and sponsors a lot of community events. Next weekend the organization will be at the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival.
Benson said she is eager to start planning trips for the public again, once it’s safe to do so.
“I think there’s a big demand for people to have an easy way to get to a wildlife refuge,” she said.