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5 Fun Ways You Can Help the Environment

Volunteer activities can make Earth greener

A small group of volunteers work to clean trash from the Watts Branch Stream.


A small group of volunteers work to clean trash from the Watts Branch Stream, which flows into the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.

You're aware of your carbon footprint: the damaging amount of carbon dioxide you emit as you heat your home, drive your car and shop, shop, shop. So how about making a positive difference by boosting your oxygen footprint? With green volunteer opportunities, you can enrich our climate instead of depleting it.

Many environmental acts are familiar and fast — turning down your thermostat, shopping with reusable bags and switching to fluorescent light bulbs. But nothing is quite as gratifying as getting out of the house and caring for the place that gave us life.

Sure, you'll get your hands dirty. But you'll also get sunshine, meet new people and lay down some protective footprints on our global home.

Here's what you can do:

1. Put down roots

Trees are nature's power plants — superefficient oxygen emitters that also scrub carbon dioxide from the air. Foliage provides vital animal habitat; shade cools the ground. Neighborhoods with trees can be up to 10 degrees cooler than those in full sun, bringing down home energy use.

But in the past 8,000 years, the planet has lost 11,000 square miles of forest.

The Arbor Day Foundation tracks national and local planting projects that welcome volunteer green thumbs. In U.S. Forest Service land alone, a million fire-damaged acres await replanting.

You can also volunteer at home, of course, saving energy (and money!) by planting a new tree to shade a sunny window. According to American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization, three well-placed deciduous (leaf-losing) trees on the east, south and west sides of a home can lower air-conditioning costs by 10 percent to 50 percent. A $10 membership in the Arbor Day Foundation will get you 10 flowering trees to plant.

Time: Half a day or more.

Consider this: Tree planters should be able to kneel and shovel without pain.

Gear: Garden gloves are a must to protect from blisters. Also bring a sun hat, sunscreen, water and snacks. Ask whether you should bring your own shovel.

Contact: Arbor Day Foundation, 888-448-7337

2. Take a conservation vacation

You'll experience one-of-a-kind holidays on service trips through organizations that arrange for travelers to work while they play. Through these popular trips — the Sierra Club National Outings program runs about 90 annual national level service trips totaling 27,000 work hours — you can enjoy the great outdoors and care for it at the same time, whether you're repairing a storm-damaged hiking trail or clearing invasive plants from woodland.

Sometimes the jobs are downright exotic: Earthwatch travelers might band penguins in Antarctica or tag endangered sea turtles in the Pacific. Best of all, these trips are great social opportunities, like adult summer camp.

Time: One day to one week.

Consider this: Cost typically doesn't include travel between home and site and varies greatly: $500 to $900 for most Sierra Club service trips, $500 to $5,000 for Earthwatch. Before booking, ask about accommodations and the physical requirements of the work you'll be doing.

Gear: Check with the trip organizer.

Contact: The dozens of groups that offer conservation trips.

Sierra Club, 415-977-5500

Earthwatch Institute, 800-776-0188

Take Pride in America, 202-208-5848

3. Join a community garden

You'll grow both food and friendships at a community garden, where members join in the planting, tending and harvesting of fruits and vegetables. Small produce patches help the environment by greening neighborhoods, providing locally harvested food and cultivating respect for the planet.

This must be why the movement is growing: More than 18,000 community gardens exist in the nation, according to the National Recreation and Parks Association.

While you dig and water, you may have the side benefit of providing nutrition for needy people, as many gardens donate their bounties to food banks. If your area doesn't have a community garden, consider starting one with the help of AARP's Create the Good community-garden startup toolkit.

Time: A few hours to join an existing garden. Numerous days (spread out in manageable chunks) to start a garden.

Consider this: If kneeling is painful for you, request gardening tasks that can be performed standing.

Gear: Garden gloves are a must. Also bring a sun hat, sunscreen, water and snacks. Ask whether you should bring your own gardening tools.

Contact: American Community Garden Association, 877-275-2242

4. Clean a stream

Nothing spoils a relaxing day on the river like finding broken glass, cigarette butts and empty beer or soda cans strewn over the banks. Litter not only sullies the appearance of streams and rivers but also can seriously contaminate these vital resources of drinking water and wildlife habitat.

That's where American Rivers steps in. Through the organization's National River Cleanup program, more than 60,000 volunteers cleared 2 million tons of trash from 6,000 miles of stream in 2010 alone. If you don't find an event scheduled near you, consider organizing your own through AARP's Create the Good program, which has partnered with American Rivers to sponsor new cleanups.

Time: Half a day to a full day.

Consider this: Wear comfortable, well-worn clothes. You'll get incredibly dirty — and a good workout, too!

Gear: Wear work boots — the sturdier the better. Also pack a sun hat, sunscreen, insect repellent, water and a snack.

Contact: American Rivers, 202-347-7550

5. Park it with the National Park Service

You can help preserve our natural and cultural heritage through a National Park Service program called Volunteers-In-Parks (VIPs). With a $100 million budget cut in 2011 and about $11 billion in backlogged maintenance needs, the country's national park system is in dire need of help.

The VIP force helps professional park rangers throughout our 390 national parks, from Civil War battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley to Yellowstone in Wyoming. As a VIP, you might guide nature walks, lead campfires for tourists, help conserve archaeological artifacts or even patrol the parks.

And if the parks are a bit too — well, cultivated — for your taste, consider checking out similar backcountry opportunities with the U.S. Forest Service.

Time: A few hours per month (minimum) to full time (maximum).

Consider this: See the websites below for official applications.

Gear: Will vary depending on the work.

Contact: National Park Service, 202-208-3818; U.S. Forest Service, 800-832-1355

This article was originally published April 20, 2011

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