Naturalists program combines outdoors study, volunteerism

Thursday, July 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:26 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

Mid-Missourians who want to expand their knowledge of the natural world will have the opportunity through a new program being offered this fall.

The Master Naturalist program, sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation and the University of Missouri Extension, is a nine-week course in ecology and natural history. Participants who complete the course, which includes 40 hours of class sessions and field trips, eight hours of advanced training in a specific field and 40 hours of volunteer service, can be certified as master naturalists.

Classes are on Thursday evenings, beginning Sept. 2. The program will feature course work in nature journaling, the history of Missouri’s resources, wetland and rivers ecosystems, wildlife populations and prescribed burns and timber harvests. Specific areas of emphasis include botany, ornithology — the study of birds, land management, Missouri eco-regions and natural resource management.

Ginny Wallace, master naturalist coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said the program is a way for people in an increasingly urban society to learn about their environment.

“As more people grow up in urban areas, they have less connection with the out-of-doors,” she said. “This is a way to help establish a connection or re-establish a connection.”

There are only 25 slots available for the program, which includes field trips to Rock Bridge State Park, Three Creeks Conservation Area and Prairie Forks Conservation Area. The course is for adults who are residents of Boone, Callaway or Cole counties.

The program is not only intended to educate, but to encourage participants to give some of their time to understanding and preserving the natural world, Wallace said.

Participants are asked to perform 40 hours of volunteer service after they complete the course work. Volunteers can focus on areas such as exotic species control, natural resource youth camps, school programs and landowner consultations.

Bob Pierce, extension wildlife specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, said volunteerism is an important part of the program.

“It’s a volunteer education program to develop volunteer activity within the local community in regards to the management of our natural resources,” he said.

Missouri’s Master Naturalist program is modeled after a Texas program started in 1998 by Texas Parks and Wildlife and Texas Cooperative Extension.

According to the Texas program’s Web site, the program currently has 200 volunteers in 25 Texas Master Naturalist chapters in the state. Since its establishment, volunteers have provided more than 164,000 hours of service, valued at more than $2.7 million. One volunteer in the program discovered a new plant species.

“It has been very successful, so we thought we would give it a try here,” Wallace said.

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