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Giving back to America's public lands

Come this Saturday, you’ll have no excuse for staying indoors as Sept. 24 is National Public Lands Day. It is the country’s largest single-day volunteer event for public lands, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation, which organizes the festivities.

Volunteers give back to national park

It is also the year’s last fee-free day at national parks and other federally-managed sites that charge an admission fee. Participants at those sites will not only get in free on Saturday, they’ll also receive a coupon for a second free day.

National Public Lands Day was launched in 1994 with three sites and 700 volunteers. Last year, it drew 170,000 participants to 2,080 projects, many of them in some surprising places like waterways, wilderness areas and grasslands that are overshadowed by the crown jewels of the national park system.

“Public lands are all around us,” said Robb Hampton, program director for National Public Lands Day. “While our national parks represent some of our most iconic public lands, there is also a magnificent and rich diversity of other federal, state and local public lands.”

Here are just a few of the many National Public Lands Day volunteer opportunities in those lesser-known destinations:

  • As part of the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management oversees more land than any other federal agency in the country: more than 245 million acres, mostly in the Western states. Its multiple-use mission encompasses everything from recreation to resource extraction.

Projects on these lands include planting native cottonwoods along the Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado River in Grand Junction, Colo., installing signs and fencing at the Overland Trail Interpretive Site in Rock Springs, Wyo., and helping to inventory petroglyphs at Mesa Prieta in Taos, N. M.

  • As the manager of the nation’s water supply, the Bureau of Reclamation is best known for its dams and reservoirs and the irrigation and hydroelectric power they produce. However, it also manages 289 recreation sites that attract 90 million visitors per year.

On Saturday, volunteers who help clear brush and pick up litter at the Shasta Lake Fishermen’s Point Day Use Area in California can enjoy a barbecue lunch and receive a T-shirt.

  • Although better known for engineering, construction and flood control, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is no slacker in the recreation department: Its 422 lake and river projects host more than 370 million visitors per year.

Volunteer options on Saturday include a cleanup (with cash prizes) at Lake Ouachita in Arkansas, building and installing nest boxes for western blue birds at Lost Creek Lake in Trail, Ore., and planting trees and restoring horseshoe pits and sand volleyball courts at Whitney/Aquilla Lakes in Clifton, Texas.

  • With 155 national forests, 20 national grasslands and 193 million acres spread across 42 states (and Puerto Rico), U.S. Forest Service lands see heavy visitation — one reason, perhaps, that the U.S. Forest Services is hosting more than 60 events this weekend.

Among the options: a celebration of a new trail and public access to Caywood Point in the Finger Lakes National Forest in New York; trail building and a cleanup at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky; and hikes, bike rides and a camping demo in the Big Creek Scenic Area in the Sam Houston National Forest/Stubble Recreation Area in New Waverly, Texas.

The above represent only a handful of the projects on tap for this year’s event and don’t include ones hosted by the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and dozens of state agencies and local groups.

For a complete list, visit the National Public Lands Day website and click on the Find a Site link, where you can pick projects by state or zip code.

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.