Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Calaveras Big Trees State Park has a longtime friend in Marcy Crawford, one of many dedicated volunteers working to make the park's future a bright one.

Crawford, 73, has spent about 14 years volunteering at the park and various other local venues. She recently served as president of the Calaveras Big Trees Association, the nonprofit group credited as one of the strongest organizations supporting state parks in California.

"For me, it's very self-fulfilling," Crawford said of her volunteer work. "We want to make sure that this park is here forever for future generations. That's what this is all about."

Crawford, a former law school administrator, lives in Arnold with her husband, Joe Crawford. Her house is full of arrowhead collections, Ansel Adams posters and artwork depicting sequoia trees.

On days when she volunteers at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, she even tops off her outfits with a shiny necklace featuring the outline of a sequoia.

Described by park ranger Jeff Davis as a "dynamo," Crawford is the definition of an extrovert. She couldn't abide the thought of spending her retirement at home.

Her work as president of the Calaveras Big Trees Association, which funds interpretive programs and projects at the park, was a 60-hour-a-week job.

She admits to being "scared to death" that she wasn't up to the task after being out of the work world for a time, but she proved herself wrong.

While serving as president from 2009 to 2011, Crawford helped the association develop its first formal strategic plan - which focused on building strong ties with the community and local businesses.

It now conducts outreach by sending speakers to local groups like the Lions Club and collaborates with other organizations, such as the Greater Arnold Business Association, on drawing visitors to the area.

"We wanted to make the community feel that we were part of them and they were part of us," Crawford said. "Anything we can do to let them know, we're all in this together."

The Calaveras Big Trees Association is one of several dozen groups that partner with state parks in California to support their educational programs. They've taken on an increasingly important role in recent years as the state budget tightened and some state parks, such as Jamestown's Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, faced the threat of closure.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park was not on a list released earlier this year of state parks that could be closed. Its giant sequoias, found only in the Sierra Nevada, continue to attract about 250,000 visitors from around the world each year.

But the Calaveras Big Trees Association deserves part of the credit for making the park the educational experience it is today, according to park Superintendent Gary Olson.

"If the association didn't exist, we wouldn't be able to have the seasonal staff to do junior ranger programs, campfire programs" and other programs, Olson said. "They would be very limited based on the state budget."

The 6,500-acre state park has a way of inspiring commitment, and it didn't take much to get Crawford hooked. She visited for the first time in 1991 and knew almost immediately that she wanted to volunteer as a docent.

"I just fell in love with the trees," Crawford summarized.

At that point she and Joe were only living in Arnold for part of each year. With some nudging from family members who loved the town, Arnold ultimately roped them in full-time. "We just started living here more and more," she said.

Crawford grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y,. but moved to Los Angeles with her first husband and family in 1971. California was her "new horizon," and within a week she knew she'd never turn back.

She spent her early adulthood raising three children but decided, as a middle-aged woman, that it wasn't too late to earn a college degree. She received her bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Redlands at the age of 45.

In the spare time she has left after volunteering, Crawford is writing a book about women in the 1950s and the challenges they faced entering the workplace.

"I had friends who didn't even know what the glass ceiling was," Crawford said. "I had very strong feelings about women's rights."

She enjoys talking about topics like the growing ethnic diversity of Los Angeles in the 20th century and considers herself a history buff.

It's a trait she's passed on to her daughter, Carol Kramer, 55, who wrote a book on Calaveras Big Trees as part of Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series in 2010.

The book tells the park's story, from its time as a Native American territory to the present-day site of educational programs and the much-appreciated "warming hut" beside the North Grove.

One chapter deals with the exploitation of the park in Gold Rush days, including the 1853 destruction of the Discovery Tree.

Park signage cites the cutting of sequoias as a lesson for present-day visitors who must work to preserve the park, a legacy Crawford and other volunteers take to heart.

The Calaveras Big Trees Association counts about 500 businesses and individuals among its membership. Over the past 15 years, it's raised $500,000 for the new visitor center under construction in the park, with the majority of funding coming from individual donations.

In addition to funding amenities such as hot chocolate and cider in the warming hut, the association runs the park's gift shop. Bookstore staffers volunteer for the nonprofit rather than the park.

The park itself has about 50 active volunteers in the winter and 200 in the summer, Olson said. They give talks on park history, do trail maintenance and perform a variety of other crucial tasks.

Some have kept it up for decades and amassed more than 10,000 hours of volunteer work, according to Davis.

In October, Crawford received a pin for her 4,250 hours of service - the equivalent of 177 days and nights camped out at the park. She also received a "California Poppy Award" from the California State Parks Foundation for her exemplary volunteer service.

Though she handed off the presidency of the Calaveras Big Trees Association to Marilyn Regan, Crawford is still a devoted member.

"It's a wonderful atmosphere," Crawford said of the volunteer community. "I think people who volunteer are all nice people. It's kind of like a big family."