The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

January 26, 2014

Nature lovers excited about making a difference

The Commercial-News

---- — DANVILLE — Becoming a Master Naturalist takes dedication of time and effort, but those involved in the program say it’s worthwhile.

“It’s a fabulous, fabulous program,” said Kimberly Warner-Blodgett, who finished the training last fall. She’s 11 hours away from certification.

“I love it,” said Bev Smith of Cissna Park, who also just finished her training. “The instructors are so knowledgeable. It’s a wonderful experience.”

She’s eager to return in the spring to see the results of a prairie restoration project along Vermilion County road 900 East — the fruits of their labor.

“That’s the result of our efforts — the opportunity to do something in our own backyard,” Smith said.

Jim Fay of Sidney has been involved in the Master Naturalists a few months, saying, “This is a good group and what they’re doing is very worthwhile. You get together with people and do interesting things.”

The Master Naturalist program educates and trains adult volunteers to help disseminate natural resource information to the public and to assist with conservation activities.

The east central Illinois program is jointly sponsored by University of Illinois Extension, Champaign County Forest Preserve District, and Urbana Park District. It exists within the framework of the Illinois Master Naturalist program.

A person must apply to get into the program, and applications are available on the website. Cost is $175, which includes a manual; some partial scholarships are available.

Training is offered once a year, from the end of August through October, and includes both classroom and outdoors hands-on classes. The participants meet from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Tuesday for 10 weeks, and there are two Saturday field days. The classes have about 25-20 people.

After that, participants must complete 60 hours of volunteer work within two years in order to become certified as Master Naturalists. Then, each year, the person must put in 30 hours of volunteer work and 10 hours of continuing education to stay certified.

“A lot of people put in well over that amount,” said Sandy Mason, horticulture educator for the Extension. People often have a soft spot for a particular park, for example, and will put in their volunteer hours there.

The Master Naturalist program was started in 2005, with the first class offered in 2006.

Now, Mason said, there are 112 active Master Naturalists (although there are more who are trained), and 8,592 volunteer hours were reported in 2013.

Many of the Master Naturalists are retired or they have flexible work schedules. However, Mason has been seeing more younger people lately, including two U of I graduates who see the program as a way to connect with researchers, almost like a job search.

“It’s great to see younger folks,” she said.

That connection with other people is a big part of the program. It can be daunting for one person to remove invasive plants from the woods all by himself, for example.

“With other people,” Mason said, “you’re talking with each other and suddenly the job is done. It’s a good way to do a tedious task.”

She added, “It’s a great way to do good things for the environment while meeting people and having fun.”

The Master Naturalist program also offers continuing education classes for those who need to keep up their certification.

The volunteers do a lot of prairie restoration, she said. It’s too expensive to buy seeds of certain plants, so the volunteers gather prairie flowers and scrape off the seeds for replanting.

“It ends up being an important part of what we do,” she said.

They also spend a lot of time removing invasive plants so native plants can thrive.

Other projects include: maintaining nature trails in a county forest preserve, assisting a nature center with a native plant garden, collecting data on wildlife populations or water quality, leading a school class on a nature hike, assisting with field surveys of endangered species, improving a wetland habitat along a river, removing invasive species from woodlands and writing articles on conservation topics.

In the classes, students learn about map reading, archaeology, botany, entomology, forests, geology, grasslands and wetlands, and birds and wildlife, among other topics.

Any adult can join the Master Naturalist program, Mason said, but it’s important for people to make the commitment so they can come to all of the weekly classes during training.