Head and shoulders side view of Erwin Topper, with gray hair and gray shirt.


Twenty-five years ago, the late Buford Dam Operations Project Manager Erwin Topper had a brainstorm. It wasn’t his first and it certainly wouldn’t be his last during his 23-year tenure as the go-to for Lake Lanier.

It would, however, go a long way toward easing budget challenges and increasing volunteer support at the 38,000-acre Corps of Engineers lake.

Back in 1999 Topper initiated Volunteer Village, a dedicated campground to house long-term out-of-town volunteers who would help staff park gatehouses, do light maintenance and repairs around the parks, help with administrative office work and help stretch what had already become a dwindling operating budget.

Today, the 14-site lakeside Volunteer Village continues to provide assistance for Corps of Engineers staff.

“Volunteer Village is a great source of additional support for our staff and projects,” said Ernest Noe, chief park ranger over volunteer programs, special events, security and safety for the Corps’ Lake Lanier project. “The concept of the program has been expanded to other parks around the lake to allow volunteers to stay on site at various parks, especially during the busy season.”

In addition to Volunteer Village, which is exclusively used for long-term volunteers who live there in their recreation vehicles while they serve, there are two camper sites at Sawnee Campground and another at Van Pugh Park.

Volunteer stays are coordinated between the volunteer and the volunteer coordinator. To be eligible to live in a park, an individual volunteer is required to work 20 hours a week; a couple gives 30 hours a week in service.

“The idea is to provide a place for them to stay in their own RVs or campers in our parks as long as they’re actively volunteering,” Noe said. “And they work with us both in the off-season and during the spring and summer.”

Jobs include answering phones and directing callers to the appropriate staff member, sorting mail and handling general paperwork, sanding and painting guard rails in the parks, building garbage can corrals within parks, and doing trail maintenance work. During the busy season, they staff park entrance gates.

“Local people can also volunteer with the Corps,” he said. “Of course, they don’t live on site, but they’re extremely helpful as well all year long.”

Local volunteers can also participate in the Friends of Lake Lanier, a non-profit organization that has a Cooperating Association Agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers. This group was designed to assist the Corps with projects that are not part of the federal budget.

“Many people are surprised to learn the COE does not keep any money received from day-use boat ramp passes, or park fees,” Noe says. “All of that money goes back to the U.S. Treasury. Friends of Lake Lanier was designed to keep funding on Lake Lanier by providing support and services to parks, campgrounds, waterways, properties, and jurisdictions that are managed by the COE. The group works with senior leadership of the Corps to identify and fund certain areas of need.”

The Friends of Lake Lanier manages several fund-generating projects at the parks, including providing firewood and stocking vending machines and collecting the money for projects.

“From carpenters to people with excellent organization skills, our volunteers work across all projects, whether they’re local or long-term,” Noe said. “We always like good dependable volunteers who can help us better serve the public and the 18 million visitors who come to Lake Lanier each year.”

What started 25 years ago by Erwin Topper has spread to other parks across the organization’s 400-plus lake and river projects across the United States. At Lake Lanier, his legacy of being forward-thinking and willing to think outside the box helped the lake earn the designation as the Best Lake in the country – twice. It is also among the top five most-visited Corps of Engineers lakes in the United States.

To learn more or volunteer, contact Noe at 770 945-9531.