There are 90 years of history separating Bob Emerson and Dave DeMarco, but a common cause uniting them.
Emerson is the executive director at Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site on Lake Erie, where a not-for-profit association was formed in 1927 to protect the then-decaying 18th century fort, making the organization the oldest “friends” group in the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
DeMarco is the president of Parks’ newest volunteer group – The Friends of Peebles Island State Park – that just formed in 2017 to help at a park in the Capital Region with its own Colonial-era military history.
Their groups bookend a statewide array of 76 such local organizations filled by everyday people who provide critical support and stewardship in partnership with State Parks. More people are deciding to help out at their favorite park, as more than 20 such groups have formed during the last two decades.
Use this map to find a Friends Group at a State Park near you…
Understanding the value of Friends groups, the state helps by offering up grants for key projects. Last year, the budget for such grants could be doubled to $1 million..
While such groups are mostly volunteers, like Peebles, there are some organizations with paid staff that raise funds and manage budgets for operations and renovations, like the Old Fort Niagara Association.
No matter the size, these volunteer groups have a large impact, accounting for more than $17 million in fundraising to benefit their respective parks in 2018, according to a recent report released by the advocacy group Parks & Trails New York. That was on top of nearly 132,000 hours of work by more than 5,100 volunteers that was valued at more than $3 million.
It doesn’t take a big checkbook to make a big difference. The majority of such groups do it all on $10,000 a year or less, according to the Parks & Trails report. The Old Fort Niagara Association, which has a full-time paid staff of more than a dozen people to run the historic fortress, also has historically had one of the largest budgets at more than $5 million annually.
“We are kind of unique here at Old Fort Niagara, in that we came into existence when this was still an Army base, before State Parks took it over. So, we were used to running this site,” said Emerson, who has overseen the historic site and its French-era fortresses as the facility’s executive director for 22 years.
DeMarco, a Waterford resident and retired administrator for SUNY Central, had been visiting Peebles Island State Park for years, bringing his kids there when they were young.
“Some years ago, I started leading an informal group of volunteers, who helped with trails and cleanups,” he said. “About four years ago, I was asked by the park manager to consider forming an official friends group. So that is what we did.”
DeMarco started with about a dozen members, and now that is up to about 45 people who volunteer their time to help maintain some five miles of trails in the 190-acre park, located on an island in the Hudson River that has a historic former bleach works.
During the Revolutionary War, the Continental army encamped at Van Schaick and Peebles Islands with the intent to engage the British army heading south from Montreal. Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko designed earthwork fortifications on Peebles Island that still exist.
“Our members can also function as ambassadors to the parks, for when people come in. We can greet them, and tell them a bit about the park and its history,” said DeMarco. Members also help out on First Day Hikes on Jan. 1 and “I Love My Park Day” in the spring, and sponsor wildlife and naturalist programs at the park’s visitors center.
“I think our location here at Peebles is one of our advantages. We are easy to reach for a lot of people,” he said.
See Friends Group members at Peebles Island State Park involved with activities like First Day Hikes and trail maintenance.
At Old Fort Niagara, the not-for-profit association has more than 700 members, making it the largest such friends group in State Parks. Members were part of more than 32,000 hours of volunteer labor at the site last year, said Emerson.
The group is responsible for running programs at the fort, as well as overseeing research efforts and a collection of historic objects related to the site. It handles a food concession, a gift shop, and the hiring of up to 60 seasonal workers to run the operation during the primary tourist season.
Volunteers perform a range of roles at Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site.
Emerson has advice for those thinking about forming a friends group for their park. “First, have a relationship with your park manager and the regional manager,” he said. “Keep it up. Reach out to your local tourism promotion agency, too.”
DeMarco said he learned the “identifying your active core” of volunteers is a key step to setting up a friends group. Parks staff helped in the paperwork requirements, which include incorporation as a not-for-profit organization, and filing of appropriate paperwork with the state Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service
“You then need to identify your purpose,” Demarco said. “Finally, collaborate with Parks & Trails New York. They have all the resources that you will need to help get you started.”
Cover Shot- Members of The Friends of Peebles Island State Park roll up their sleeves during some trail maintenance there. (Photo Credit- Dave DeMarco)
All photos courtesy of The Friends of Peebles Island State Park and Old Fort Niagara Association.
By Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Learn more about how to start your own Friends Group.
Read about what Friends Groups have done in other parks across the U.S.
Explore the Parks & Trails New York webpage on Friends groups.