USFWS Volunteer Ed Kleiner

Longtime U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) Volunteer Interpreter Ed Kleiner keeps watch Thursday morning over the kayakers and swimmers enjoying the waters of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. USFWS is looking for more volunteers during the summer months to patrol the refuge property and its boardwalk, acting as educational guides. 

People travel from across the world to pay and see what the wildlife of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River has to offer.

You don't have to go that far.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (USFWS’) Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is looking for summertime volunteers to meet, greet and guide travelers visiting Three Sisters Springs and the service’s welcome center.

“Our volunteers really are the face of the refuge,” refuge manager Joyce Palmer said. “Visitors come, and that’s who they’re most likely going to see.”

Palmer said 127 refuge volunteers were active from October 2017 to September 2018, recording roughly 19,000 hours of service.

For the past few years, USFWS, which manages Three Sisters Springs on behalf of Crystal River and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, has allowed guests onto the property during the summer months via the city’s trolley service.

Palmer said volunteerism is high during the cooler winter months, when manatees migrate into the warm springs, but it’s a different story when the hotter summer temperatures arrive.

“We don’t have the awareness that we need volunteers in the summer,” Palmer said. “It’s also harder because people don’t like being hot.”

To volunteer with USFWS, fill out an application form at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex, 865 North Suncoast Boulevard, or call Volunteer Coordinator Jim Valade at 352-563-2088.

Palmer said her refuge is in need of volunteer interpreters to walk Three Sisters Springs’ boardwalk, introducing tourists to the springs and educate them on its habitat for the manatee.

There are also spots open for maintenance and kayaking Manatee Watch volunteers, but those roles aren’t urgent for USFWS to fill.

On the water: Manatee tourism ‘trending correctly’

A volunteer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service carefully watches a swimmer at the entrance to Three Sisters Springs. The wildlife service has had a strong presence in the area educating swimmers and boaters how to safely and properly interact with the manatees.

“We’ll still find a shift for you,” Palmer said. “We always welcome new people.”

Ed Kleiner has been patrolling the Three Sisters Springs boardwalk since 2012, helping guests with questions on the refuge and its manatees, and keeping swimmers and boaters from unlawfully coming ashore or harassing wildlife.

“We’re educating people about this marvelous animal that we’ve been charged with protecting,” he said. “We are probably the first contact for people except for the hotel clerks and restaurant servers when people come here to see this animal that they’ve heard about.”

Kleiner comes prepared for the day — hot or cold — with some coolers, snacks, water, insect spray and a stool.

“We’ve got a family atmosphere here,” Kleiner said, “and I feel like we’re contributing something to the environment and to this wonderful animal we’re entrusted with protecting.”

While Kleiner gets excited to tell his audiences about his office, he’s just as happy to point them to other points of interest throughout Citrus County so they can stay in the area longer.

Learning in a natural setting

Retired educator Susan Pratt tests the knowledge of a group of Crystal River Primary School students in 2017 at Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. Pratt is one of numerous volunteers, many retired educators, with the Friends of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex who help to educate fifth-grade students from Crystal River Primary School through a pilot program that integrates science standards with the local ecosystem. The Friends group provided funding for the children’s transportation, learning materials and experts to help the children learn through the day-long field trip that offered many hands-on activities.

“I view it as my responsibility to let people know about these other things,” he said.

Other needed volunteer positions include people to man USFWS’ visitor center and the Nature Store inside.

Lynne Smith oversees the gift shop, operated by the Friends of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

Smith’s been a USFWS volunteer since April 2013, kayaking around Three Sisters Springs as a part of Manatee Watch, and staffing the Friends’ store when it was once in the refuge's old headquarters off of Kings Bay Drive.

Like Kleiner, Smith is one of the very first people tourists meet on their treks to the USFWS refuge.

“I enjoy meeting people, I enjoy talking to people about manatees, I enjoy talking to people about things to do in Crystal River,” she said. “If you enjoy meeting new people and sharing what you like to do in the outdoors, it’s a very rewarding job, and it’s a lot of fun, actually.”

For those who live far away but still want to donate their time and services, USFWS has a resident program that provides mobile volunteers with an RV pad in Chassahowitzka that includes water, sewer and electric hookups, in exchange for each person doing 24 hours of service a week.

USFWS is also trying to bring on more volunteers to expand its guided walking tours on Three Sisters Springs and its local birdlife, wetlands and other habitats.

Palmer said opportunities like these can help bring people closer to the environment, and their invaluable services could inspire others to follow suit.

“Everybody has their own personal reasons for doing it, but most people want to give back to their community,” she said. “They enjoy the outdoors and they want to introduce people to what they’re passionate about. It’s a way for them to get out and help the environment.”

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Contact Chronicle reporter Buster Thompson at 352-564-2916 or bthompson@chronicleonline.com.

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