Renee Smith wants to improve the environment in Minnesota, and she's starting with bluebirds.

Smith is a senior process engineer at the Flint Hills Resources refinery in Rosemount. In her free time, she oversees Flint Hills' volunteer bluebird program for employees, which provides space for the birds to make their nests.

"The natural habitat for birds has diminished," Smith said. "A lot of [bluebirds] nest in Minnesota, so bluebirds were affected a lot by the lack of natural habitat."

The program initially started more than 10 years ago with Smith's predecessor, Joel Mielke, and a group of Boy Scouts. The group built birdhouses and scattered them around the refinery in response to a decline in bluebird populations in Minnesota and across the country.

Today, Smith and her team of six to seven co-workers, whom she calls her "bluebird engineers," maintain 20 bluebird houses around the Flint Hills' property.

The old birdhouses, made by Mielke and his team of Boy Scouts, were replaced last year when the company purchased a set of angular Peterson-style birdhouses.

"The [old] houses were getting a little weathered," Smith said. "We kept trying to fix them."

The Peterson-style box originally was invented by a Minnesota native, Dick Peterson, and is meant to attract bluebirds to nest while discouraging other types of fowl.

Smith and her bluebird engineers take turns checking on the houses weekly, usually in pairs. The process takes an hour or more to open each birdhouse, look for signs of distress in the nest and collect data. They'll intervene to ensure a nest is successful.

"We want to make sure they're OK, because there are some natural predators, like gnats," Smith said. "We look for broken nests, and a lot of times we have to get rid of wasps."

They also track how successful the individual houses are each year. The group counts the number of eggs laid, birds hatched and how many birds fly from the nest. So far this year, 55 fledglings have left the nests in the Flint Hills birdhouses.

"We are currently on pace to break the 2012 record [of 89 fledglings]," said Kevin Jarzab, an operations engineer and bluebird program volunteer for the past two years. "But, like anything, Mother Nature can change things, so we don't want to put all of our eggs in one basket."

At the end of the season, the team will evaluate which bluebird houses were successful and which were not. Less successful boxes will be moved to a new area for next year.

"We're trying to maximize the value creation of those boxes and what they can give to the environment," Jarzab said.

Beyond bluebirds

The bluebird program is one of about a dozen volunteer opportunities that Flint Hills offers, most of which are focused on the environment, said Jake Reint, director of public affairs at Flint Hills.

Along with the bluebird project, employees can volunteer for company initiatives to help animals like snakes, bats, butterflies and bees.

Once a year, Flint Hills and the advocacy group Friends of the Mississippi River recruit volunteers to clear invasive plant species from Pine Bend Bluffs Scientific and Natural Area in Inver Grove Heights, near the refinery.

"We make these opportunities known internally, and it's never hard to get people to turn out for them," said Reint.

The efforts around the refinery are paying off, said Andrew Payne, an operations engineer who has volunteered in the bluebird project for the past year.

"You really feel like you are not even close to a refinery when you are out looking at bluebird houses," he said. "Over on the other side of the road, you're seeing wildlife."

For Smith, seeing the wildlife is a perk, but the most important part of the bluebird project is making a positive mark on the local environment — and helping others who care about it.

"If I'm doing my little part here, maybe I can do my little part somewhere else, too, and maybe encourage other people to do their part," she said. "[We'll] hopefully make our world an environmentally better place."

Janice Bitters is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.