The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

February 11, 2013

Nature class lends a hand


DANVILLE — Many people are familiar with the Master Gardener’s program. We have heard them on local television and radio stations or read an article they published in the newspaper.

Master Gardeners give out great advice on whatever problem residents might have in a garden or lawn. If they don’t know the answer, they ask a fellow Master Gardener or they have the resources of the University of Illinois Extension to find an answer. And, best of all, the service is free.

There is a similar program that covers areas outside of residents’ backyards. It covers forests, grasslands, wetlands, ponds, rivers and other places outdoors. It is the Master Naturalist program.

The concept of the program is much like the Master Gardener program. The program educates and trains volunteers to give out natural resource information to the public and to assist in conservation activities.

The area program, the East-Central Illinois Master Naturalist program, began in 2005. Since that time, 165 residents have completed the 70 hours of classroom and in-the-field training. They also have completed the required 40 hours of volunteer service after the classroom training is complete.

These Master Naturalists have completed 15,400 volunteer hours with an estimated value of $320,000 in area parks and nature preserves.

Gay Cullum of rural Potomac is one Vermilion County resident who has completed the program. Cullum became involved because of her love of nature.

“My husband and I go to Kickapoo every weekend to walk with our dog,” Cullum said. “I just like to be outside after working inside all week.”

Cullum said she initially read about the program in the spring of 2012 in an area newspaper.

“I contacted Sandra Mason, who is an extension educator with the University of Illinois Extension, for more information,” Cullum said.

Cullum signed up for the class that began in August 2012 and completed it in October 2012.

According to Cullum, the classes were wide ranging and interesting.

“We had classes on archaeology, botany, entomology forests, geology, learning about the grasslands and wetlands, and learning about all of the different area birds and wildlife,” Cullum said.

Cullum said the class made visits to the Collison Indian site as well as trips to Kickapoo to study aquatic life in the river. The classes are taught by experts in their field from the university.

Cullum said the classes are normally conducted on Tuesday nights for 10 weeks with a couple of Saturdays for field trips. After completion of the classroom phase of the course, participants are required to complete 40 hours of volunteer service.

Cullum chose Kickapoo State Park as the place she would perform her volunteer hours.

“I chose Kickapoo because it was close to my home and I was familiar with it,” Cullum said.

Some of Cullum’s volunteer activities have included being a site steward, cleaning up around campsites, monitoring the area bluebird population and improving hiking trails. The latter resulted in her and Kickapoo site superintendent John Hott leading a group of a dozen volunteers on a recent Saturday morning in trimming the brush back on one of the trails in Kickapoo.

Hott said he is thankful for Cullum and the enthusiasm she brings.

“With the recent cutbacks by the state in funding for places such as Kickapoo, we are going to have to rely on volunteers more,” Hott said.

Hott, who not only supervises Kickapoo with its 2,842 acres, also is responsible for the Middle Fork State Fish and Wildlife Area with 83 acres and the Harry “Babe” Woodyard State Natural Area with 1,104 acres.

Hott manages all of these areas, which is a little more than 4,000 acres with just two workers and himself. Hott said at one time he supervised a staff of 13 people.

Hott, with Cullum’s assistance, plans to have more volunteer days at Kickapoo. They have tentatively set the third Saturday of every month to meet and do some project at Kickapoo. The group will work from 9 a.m. to noon, with volunteers asked to show up at 8:30 a.m. at the Kickapoo maintenance building.


If you are interested in the Master Naturalist program, contact University of Illinois Extension at 333-7672. If you would like to talk to one of Vermilion County’s Master Naturalists, contact Gay Cullum by e-mail at or by phone at 474-2884. Her group will conduct volunteer work days on the third Saturday of each month at Kickapoo State Park.