Litchfield Wetland Management District in central Minnesota sprawls across 36,000 acres in seven counties. Its maintenance crew is always busy. So, awhile back when mechanic Steve Warner asked to spend two weeks at a faraway national wildlife refuge building a road as part of a Maintenance Action Team (MAT), district manager Scott Glup was skeptical.

“My initial thought was: ‘Okay, we have more work than we can get done. Why do I want to send my folks off to work on another station?’”

But Glup approved the request and saw an immediate payoff. Team members “come back feeling better about themselves and their jobs,” he says. “And they come back with a different skill set that involves coordination and working with others.”

Now, Glup is a believer. “Anytime someone here wants to go on a MAT project, I say, ‘You bet. Go.’”

The National Wildlife Refuge System wants others to follow suit. Last summer, Chief Jim Kurth and the regional refuge chiefs approved a work group’s recommendation to expand the MAT program as a tool to stretch budgets and enhance field workforce capabilities. Field managers and area supervisors are urged to identify suitable MAT projects and provide equipment/staff for them.

A MAT is a group of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees with maintenance skills, usually drawn from multiple field stations, temporarily brought together to work on a short–term construction, demolition or habitat restoration project that traditionally would be done by a private contractor.

In an era of tight budgets, MAT can help the Service reduce its $2.4 billion deferred maintenance backlog. The work group has found that earth–moving MAT projects, such as levee and road construction, cost 40 to 60 percent less than if done by private contractors. Construction and demolition MAT projects cost 30 to 50 percent less. Rob Miller, chief of the Refuge System’s Branch of Facilities and Equipment Management, estimates annual savings of more than $2 million nationally.

“We’re not paying a general contractor profit and overhead. We’re not paying to rent equipment,” he says. “We’re not paying … for all the layers and layers that are involved in most construction projects.”

Miller also cites more efficient use of specialized equipment. Just as important, he says, are the training and morale boosts MAT participants receive.

MAT projects include some expert heavy equipment operators and some novices, “so the participants receive mentoring and training and concentrated time on equipment they may not have access to on a daily basis,” Miller says. “It builds professional networks that are very valuable.”

photo of Wiig and Teske
Cody Wiig (red hard hat) and Cody Teske were part of the Maintenance Action Team last summer at Windom Wetland Management District.
Credit: Michael Gale/USFWS

Warner, the Litchfield WMD mechanic, has been on nine MAT projects, including a tallgrass prairie restoration last summer at Minnesota’s Windom WMD in which a crew imploded three silos, buried building foundations and removed invasive trees to erase traces of eight farm or homestead sites.

The MAT “operated like a well–oiled machine and accomplished far more than our original objectives … on a project that would have cost us easily twice as much if we had contracted it out,” says Windom WMD manager Todd Luke.

A typical MAT crew works 12 hours a day, seven days a week for at least two weeks. When the project ends, the camaraderie continues. Participants swap e–mail addresses and keep in touch.

Back at Litchfield, Warner supervised a team that built 10 parking lots at waterfowl production areas in two weeks “and saved the Service a ton of money,” he says.

Litchfield staff also built a 500–foot boardwalk. Skills for both tasks came from MAT experience.

“You gain confidence on these MAT details, and you bring that back to your station,” Warner says. “The networking and the knowledge you bring back is just unbelievable.”

Heather Dewar is a writer–editor in the Refuge System’s Branch of Communications.