BEND, Ore. - About 200 people from across the West are in Bend this weekend for a conference to brainstorm about ways to help the Bureau of Land Management better protect the country's National Conservation Lands.
Volunteer Friends groups put in more than 112,000 hours last year and saved the federal government more than $3 million, according to the Conservation Lands Foundation, the conference sponsor.
The work isn't easy -- collecting trash and pulling noxious weeds, but Cindy Murray with Friends and Neighbors of the Deschutes Canyon Area says the camaraderie makes it fun, and the BLM is grateful.
"They are so short-staffed," Murray says. "So, Friends network groups give them great hands-on support that actually go out in the field, which is what we love to do. The projects that can be done are just never-ending."
And when people call it a working conference, they're not kidding. After their meetings, members of the Friends groups will spend Sunday pitching in on trail maintenance in the Steelhead Falls area and barbed wire fence removal in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness east of Bend.
Friends groups also serve as informal ambassadors for their areas, doing research, giving presentations and guiding hikes and tours.
David Eddleston, executive director of Friends of the Oregon Badlands Wilderness, says one of his favorite activities is taking school children into the rugged high desert.
"I always ask them to spread out just a little bit from each other and stay silent for five minutes, and to enjoy the solitude, serenity and silence," he says. "When they gather again with the teacher and myself - 'That was cool, man! That was cool!'"
Some Friends groups stick to maintenance projects while others get involved in politics to help preserve the areas they love. Weekend workshops at the Friends Rendezvous cover topics from fundraising to photography, to how to operate a successful Friends group.
Chris Thomas of Oregon News Service provided this report.