Early on a Saturday morning at a remote site along the Missouri River, a small group of people talk quietly among themselves. A few more people arrive and then everyone sets to work. Some begin cutting cedars, while others drag large logs through the mud.
This is not a commercial work crew. Instead, it is a group of Missouri Master Naturalists who have set aside the day to install turtle basking logs and to place fish-attracting structure in a scour hole along the Missouri River in the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.
The Missouri Master Naturalist program is a community-based, adult, natural resource education and volunteer program sponsored by the Department of Conservation, the University of Missouri Extension and the MU School of Natural Resources. The mission of the Master Naturalist program is to engage Missourians in the stewardship of our state’s natural resources through science-based education and volunteer service.
Ask Master Naturalists, and they might offer somewhat different descriptions of the program. Barbara Lucks of Springfield describes it as “an opportunity to learn, work with like-minded folks, and provide service back to my community.”
Leslie Limberg of the St. Charles Confluence Chapter says, “It’s the chance of a lifetime to get professionally educated by authentic, real-life foresters, naturalists, conservation educators, wildlife biologists, herpetologists, etc., and then to become a part of their network of wildlife support, doing things you’ve only ever seen on National Geographic specials.”
Participants become Certified Master Naturalists by completing a 40-hour course on Missouri natural history, natural communities and wildlife management, and natural resource interpretation. They also must contribute 40 hours of conservation-related volunteer service and complete an additional eight hours of advanced training within a year. Master Naturalists retain their certification by annually contributing 40 hours of volunteer service and taking eight hours of advanced training.
People are drawn to the Master Naturalist program for a variety of reasons. For Cindy Craig of West Plains it was her grandson’s questions about the North Fork River.
“His questions and young eagerness to learn,” she said, “impressed upon me one important fact: I didn’t have answers to any of his questions. That bothered this grandma!”
Most participants want to learn more about Missouri’s rich natural history. The 40-hour course covers a wide variety of topics, including basic ecological concepts, Missouri’s eco-regions and ecosystems, wildlife population and natural community management, rural and urban conservation issues, plant and animal identification, and much more. Special attention is focused on local ecosystems.
Field sessions are an important part of the training. Instead of a lecture about the Missouri River in a classroom, participants take to the river in boats. Class members learn forest ecosystem concepts by comparing the size and age of trees on a north slope with those on a south slope, and they learn about plant diversity in a prairie by counting the number of different species in a plot.
Courses take 9-12 weeks to complete. Sessions typically are held once during the week, usually in the afternoon or evening. There are also several Saturday field sessions. It’s a time-intensive experience.
“The initial training can be demanding on people with busy schedules,” said Wrandi Thomas, a Master Naturalist who lives in Webb City, “but rewarding throughout the process.”
John Vandover of the St. Charles Confluence Chapter said he became interested in the program because he believes in the importance of volunteer service.
“I’ve always been an avid hunter, fisherman and great lover of the outdoors,” he said. “Preserving, protecting and restoring our natural resources have always been very important to me. We are ordinary people who are committed through volunteer service. And, we need to develop a large, very active cadre of citizen naturalists who can make an impact across our state.”
Master Naturalist service projects run the gamut from collecting, cleaning and planting seeds in a prairie restoration area to conducting toad and frog surveys, from planting rain gardens to developing and presenting programs.
Master Naturalist Eleanor Mitter of Columbia, an early-childhood educator, developed the Nature Detectives program for preschoolers and their parents. She offers the program during the summer at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park through the Friends of Rock Bridge.
The Confluence Chapter created a rain garden at the Lewis & Clark Boathouse in St. Charles. The garden, located in a former construction dump site, features plants Lewis and Clark might have seen in Missouri on their expedition. The Chapter is working with a local education consultant from the Conservation Department to develop information on the garden that will be incorporated into the many school programs conducted at the Boathouse.
Members of the Boone’s Lick Chapter worked with the Friends of Big Muddy to complete a butterfly and moth survey at the Overton Bottoms unit of the Big Muddy Fish & Wildlife Refuge. Among the finds was a regal fritillary, a species of conservation concern not documented from that part of the state. Their efforts contributed to a checklist for area visitors.
As these examples illustrate, volunteer service projects provide educational opportunities as well as benefit many agencies and organizations in the members’ communities. Local partnerships are an important part of the program. Organizations and agencies that share a resource conservation mission support local chapters in a variety of ways. In return, they receive volunteer service.
Camp Brim Shire, a non-profit camp that serves disabled and disadvantaged youth, receives help from the Meramec Hills Chapter of Master Naturalists. Camp Director and Master Naturalist Richard Hashagen said chapter members assist clients during weekly fishing outings, and they have helped create a Braille trail for visually impaired campers.
The Wildcat Glades Conservation and Audubon Center is the beneficiary of a wide variety of volunteer activities provided by the Chert Glades Naturalists Chapter in Joplin.
The Conservation Department also benefits because volunteers help combat invasive species, assist with prairie restoration, conduct wildlife surveys and get involved with conservation education.
Being a Missouri Master Naturalist requires a real commitment of time and effort. Not everyone can fit such a commitment into their already busy lives, but for those who stick with it, the rewards are many.
Connie McCormack of the St. Charles Confluence Chapter said, “This is the first program I’ve been part of that has the potential to leave something of what I value behind when I am gone.”
Although a full-time working mother, Wrandi Thomas looks forward to the monthly meetings and projects. “The wonder of children has to be the best part,” she said. “They really listen and have a curiosity that some adults miss out on.”
Celeste Mazzacano of Columbia stays involved because it gives her the chance to keep learning new things, and it fits well with her personal values.
“And, it’s proactive,” she added. “The rain forests are disappearing, the glaciers are melting…What can one person do? A lot of people use that as an excuse to stay apathetic or uninformed, but if everyone out there planted a few native plants, yanked out a few invasives, created a few square feet of habitat, educated a few more people about the effect of impervious surfaces on urban streams, put up a few bat houses, cleaned up a few hundred yards of streams, dumped their unused crayfish bait back into the same creek they took them out of, things would be a whole lot better than they are.”
For Leslie Limberg of the St. Charles Confluence Chapter being a Master Naturalist is a way to preserve the future by carrying on a legacy of the past.
“Starting when I was 12 or so,” she said, “I regularly went bird hunting with my dad. The out-of-doors became my refuge. Walking in the tall grass I could ‘vanish’ in the face of something much greater than myself. The Master Naturalist program is a continuation of Dad’s legacy.”
Master Naturalists are organized into local chapters. Visit www.monaturalist.org for more information and to find a chapter near you. The first step to becoming a Master Naturalist is to enroll in the 40-hour course. Courses are usually offered once a year by chapters, and course fees range from $75 to $100. Classes are filled on a first-come, first-served basis and usually fill quickly.
Missouri Master Naturalist is a new program, and chapters are added each year. New chapters are started by members of a community who want to play an active role in making a difference in their local natural resources. Contact your local MDC or MU Extension office for more information on the chapter application process, or visit www.monaturalist.org to download the application for chapter charter.
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