Diane Buell didn’t set out to break records. When she began volunteering at what is now Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, she simply wanted to stay active in retirement.

That was in 1989. Since then, the Denver resident has racked up almost 19,000 volunteer hours—the equivalent of nine years as a full–time employee—at the refuge and the National Eagle and Wildlife Property Repository, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility on site. The sum surprises even her.

“You don’t really notice. [The count] just gets there,” says the former computer programmer and Air Force master sergeant.

Buell, 74, has become an indispensable resource.

“She does everything,” says Rocky Mountain Arsenal Refuge volunteer coordinator Cassandra Bland. “She roves trails and roads on the days we do tours to let tour guides know what wildlife is out there. She helps staff the visitor center … She helps with biology research projects … She drives a 14–passenger van for photo tours.” At the repository, she inventories contraband wildlife property seized by law enforcement officers.

She is also an eyewitness to a remarkable transformation. During her 21–year tenure, Rocky Mountain Arsenal Refuge has gone from toxic waste site to renascent prairie 10 miles from downtown Denver. Before the refuge was established in 1992, the U.S. Army made chemical weapons there for use in World War II. Later, Shell Oil made pesticides until 1982. Last fall, after a $2 billion cleanup, the Environmental Protection Agency removed the refuge property from its Superfund list.

“I feel good about it,” says Buell, a member of the Friends of the Front Range Wildlife Refuges. “All the manufacturing plants are gone. Refuge staff is restoring it back to prairie. You wouldn’t even know there once was a manufacturing complex out there.”

In describing Buell, supervisors use words like “dedicated,” “reliable,” “detail–oriented” and “energetic.”

“I see her work circles around younger people,” says wildlife repository specialist Doni Sprague. “I think of her as part of the staff.”

“I Can’t Keep Up With Her”

Buell does pose one problem for Bland. “It’s been a challenge for me to figure out what kind of award to give her. I can’t keep up with her,” the refuge volunteer coordinator says. “Our files tell us: This is what a volunteer gets at 50 hours. This is what a volunteer gets at 75 hours. Not that many volunteers are at 20,000 hours.”

Back in 1989, Buell discovered the refuge land through a photography course, which offered an escape from her desk job. “It was out in open air, and wildlife was what I enjoyed,” she says. “I always had a passion for the out–of–doors. I grew up in a small town in Iowa, so we were always outside as kids.”

You can still hear her delight in nature when she talks about counting eagles in spring—a task she alternates with the refuge biologist. “You sit out in the dark and cold and see all those bald eagles coming into that roost tree for the night. That is fantastic to see,” she says.

Of all her refuge activities, does she have a favorite? “Not really,” she says. “I like them all. It’s just like the wildlife through the year: It changes. Now we’ve got bald eagles migrating back from the North. In the fall, you see bucks in the rut. In the summer, you see burrowing owls. There’s always something to see year–round. That’s what makes it interesting.”

Susan Morse is a writer–editor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.