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Two women and a man crouching on the ground, looking at rocks

Volunteers training to become Minnesota Master Naturalists examine some rocks.

U partners with state to offer master naturalist training

By Rick Moore

July 25, 2006

Minnesota has long enjoyed the reputation of being a leader for volunteerism, with one recent report rating the state as third in the nation for percentage of people who share their time and talents with the community.

Now there's a new program that's finding a niche with Minnesotans: an opportunity to become a Minnesota Master Naturalist. Similar in nature to a master gardener, a master naturalist gains expertise about Minnesota's natural resources and parlays that knowledge into service to the state. The program is a partnership between the University of Minnesota Extension Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The program offers volunteers a choice of three courses that correspond to Minnesota's three biomes, or ecosystems: "Northwoods, Great Lakes" (an area extending from central Minnesota to the Arrowhead region); "Prairies and Potholes" (a band covering the western edge of the state); and "Big Woods, Big Rivers" (a swath running from northwestern to southeastern Minnesota).

Volunteers complete a 40-hour, hands-on course taught by expert instructors on the natural history and ecology of the biome. According to Amy Rager, a University of Minnesota regional extension educator and the program's coordinator, the courses examine the plants, animals, and people of the area, and how interactions between the three occur in the biome. "It's a cultural and natural history at kind of a '101' level," she says.

When volunteers finish their course, they are asked to complete 40 hours of service each year in the areas of program support, citizen science (for example, gathering data for research), stewardship projects, or education and interpretation.

Becoming a master naturalist

Prospective volunteers complete a 40-hour, hands-on course with expert instructors and fellow learners. Participants receive detailed course manuals and certificates of accomplishment upon completion. Each course costs $200. For further information and to register, visit Minnesota Master Naturalist.

Rager points out that there's considerable flexibility in the types of projects volunteers can carry out. "If you volunteer anywhere in the state of Minnesota, that's a good thing," she says. "If you have a cabin and you want to do a project at your cabin, that's acceptable to us."

Jim Fox signed up for the initial training course for the Big Woods, Big Rivers biome last fall on the heels of his retirement from 3M--where he worked for 37 years as a chemical engineer. Fox, who had long been involved with amateur astronomy and birding, figured the master naturalist program was a good fit for his interests. His course was taught at Fort Snelling State Park last fall.

"I had done some interpretive volunteering before, and I thought this might be a nice way to polish up my skills and do some more," he says. "I've always been interested in what's going on all around me. It's a nice opportunity."

Although barely past the halfway point of 2006, the 61-year-old Fox estimates that he's already volunteered 50 to 60 hours this year, despite traveling frequently with his wife. When in town, he has participated in bird banding every week, helped with three or four birding walks at nature centers or state scientific and natural areas, and participated in interpretive trips on the Mississippi River aboard the Harriet Bishop.

According to Rager, Fox is typical of the master naturalist volunteers to date--many of whom are young retirees, although they range in age from the 20s to 75. Rager also says that volunteers tend to be highly educated and very skilled.

Their service also has a tangible economic benefit for the state. She says that one organization has estimated the value of general volunteer service in Minnesota to be $18.18 per hour. To date Minnesota Master Naturalists have collectively logged about 5,000 hours of service, "so that's a pretty good value," she says. "What they provide is an opportunity for nature centers and other state agencies to do things that have kind of been on the back burner, that [these places] haven't had the time or [human] resources to accomplish."

Thus far, about 100 volunteers have been trained for the Big Woods, Big Rivers biome. The first offering for Prairies and Potholes will take place this fall, and the first class for the Northwoods, Great Lakes biome is set to roll out in the fall of 2007. Rager hopes that in the future the program will be able to train 100 volunteers a year for each of the three biomes.