Adult nature lovers enroll in U program

Each of the 20 members earns a unique pin for their achievements.

by Yelena Kibasova

With many different volunteer opportunities available today, some people choose to get down and dirty with nature.

The Minnesota Master Naturalist Program, which teaches adults about nature topics such as forest communities and aquatic systems, is offered to community members through the College of Natural Resources, University Extension Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The program is similar to the Master Gardener Program, which teaches people to become near-experts in gardening.

“Master Naturalists is a program that we’re developing that is the naturalist equivalent of Master Gardeners,” said Robert Blair, associate professor in the department of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology, and director of the program. “We thought it would be a great thing to start in Minnesota because Minnesotans are so outdoors-oriented.”

A naturalist is described as “a student of natural history.”

“(It’s basically) someone who just enjoys studying stuff outside,” Blair said.

It is a fairly new type of program that has only been established in Texas and Florida thus far, said Amy Rager, regional extension educator at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris and coordinator of the program.

Minnesota’s program started its pilot class this semester with 20 students. The students ranged from 30-years-olds to retirees.

“Twenty-five percent of the class… had their Ph.D.,” Rager said. “This is a pretty well-educated group of people.”

Students came with all different backgrounds and experiences.

Jim Fox, 60, of Afton, participates in different volunteering opportunities such as bird banding for tracking.

“I’m retired, bored and wanted something to do,” he said. “I’ve had a lifelong interest in amateur astronomy and just interested in science and nature in general.”

Five instructors taught the 11-week course at Fort Snelling State Park. This particular course, titled “Big Woods, Big Rivers,” concentrated on large deciduous wooded areas and the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers.

Students listened to lectures, participated in hands-on activities such as water quality measurement and went on several field trips.

The class ended last week and class members will continue doing volunteer work to achieve the required 40 hours. These volunteer hours will grant them a pin that awards them the official Master Naturalist volunteer title.

Each year, the students must complete 40 hours of volunteering to receive another pin.

“The pins are custom-made for us, so these will be the only 20 people in the world who have this particular pin,” Rager said.

Volunteer opportunities are separated into four categories. Citizen science volunteers do monitoring such as counting monarch butterfly larval levels. Program support volunteers perform behind-the-scenes support, such as administrative duties. Education and interpretation opportunities include leading trail hikes and stewardship volunteers work on projects such as prairie restoration.

“I’m currently a volunteer at the Minnesota Zoo and I have been there for about nine years,” said David Schmidt, 57, of Inver Grove Heights. “Now (I’m hoping to) have an opportunity to… do more volunteering as a naturalist.”

Students will continue to put in volunteer hours in the years to come, as well as take follow-up courses.

Three Minnesota biomes will be covered through the program.

“It’s our hope that in five years we’ll have about 1,000 people trained, and I think that’s realistic,” Rager said. “We’re hoping that it helps educate citizens about the natural world in Minnesota to help them make better decisions in their daily life.”