Pennsylvania Master Naturalist program moving closer to Lycoming County
A statewide initiative that puts out highly trained natural science envoys is moving closer to the area and looking for individuals who are ready to take on the rewarding challenge of connecting people to their ecosystems.
The Pennsylvania Master Naturalist program is a venture directed toward developing a local corps of “master volunteers and service providers” to offer education, outreach and service dedicated to the understanding and management of natural areas within their communities.
As a person who has directed a non-profit organization for years, Michele Richards, president of Pennsylvania Master Naturalists, noticed a serious need for trained volunteers.
After discovering a naturalist program in Texas, Richards decided it was something she wanted to try to create in Pennsylvania.
“A lot of non-profit agencies and conservationist groups lack resources to meet their missions,” Richards said. “We got this program to the state because of that great need to be able to help those groups accomplish their goals.”
Efforts to bring a master naturalist program to the state began in 2004 and three years later, Pennsylvania Master Naturalists was deemed a non-profit organization.
For about three years, the non-profit began developing a curriculum and held its first training in the Philadelphia area in 2010.
“We wanted to start it in the largest metropolitan area to make the most impact and involve the most amount of people,” Richards said. “By starting it there, we could develop a full curriculum that included education in urban, suburban and rural ecosystems.”
The program’s first two years were piloted in that area.
Since then, the organization has engaged in more than 6,300 hours of conservation service and contributed over $140,000 in conservation value and impact to regional partners.
They’ve reached over 9,300 people in the regions they operate in and affected 330 acres of habitat.
Training the elite conservationist
The program to become a master naturalist is an intensive process reserved for those passionate and dedicated to becoming a part of a greater movement.
“The title comes with responsibilities,” Richards said.
The initial program is 55 hours of intensive classes spanning many different topics.
Training hours are stretched over nine to 13 weeks with five weekends of field experience, all to shape each person into four broad categories – educators, interpreters, citizen scientists and stewards.
A person taking the course could get extensive education on watersheds, plant and animal communities, nature interpretations, human impact and even urban ecosystems.
“We try to cover all aspects of natural history,” said Ellyn Nolt, program coordinator. “Our hope is that if someone sees they are a master naturalist, they know they are the type of person that can inform them on what they want to know.”
The training is unique specifically based on which one of four ecoregions in which the program is being held.
“There’s the southeast, the Appalachian forest, the wilds in the eastern temperate forests, and the mid-Atlantic coastal plain,” Nolt said.
The programs teach much of the same material to all ecoregions, but some information is tailored specifically to the unique factors in that area.
Once a prospective naturalist completes the training program, he or she must fit in eight hours of some sort of relevant continuing education and 30 hours of service within a year.
“If they fit that in within a year, they become certified,” Richards said.
Upon earning certification, the person has to have a minimum of 20 hours of service and 12 hours of continuing education in subsequent years.
So far, the group has trained about 240 master naturalists.
“And that number is growing all the time,” Nolt said.
A growing network
The program isn’t simply a training camp for someone to become a master naturalist, but a network of growing organizing efforts to help other organizations with what they need to make an impact in the natural world around them, Nolt said.
“We provide highly trained volunteers to help people who have an interest in volunteering and connect them to organizations where they could be useful,” she said.
Although the content in the program is nearly a full load of undergraduate courses in natural sciences packed into a single program, volunteers are encouraged to decide what their main focus is.
“The list of projects that some of the naturalists have been involved in is amazing,” Richards said. “And that’s just what we were hoping for. There’s a lot to do and that was our hope — to recruit and help hundreds of thousands of different groups.”
But what most master naturalists are finding is that being involved is a lot more rewarding than they realized.
“We work on creating a network of like-minded people,” Nolt said. “And one thing they start to realize is how fun it is to spend time with others that share those interests.”
This spring, the Pennsylvania Master Naturalists are proud to be able to advance to a region close to Lycoming County.
Pairing with the Montour Area Recreation Commission, a program will be offered from April 4 through June 20, furthering the group’s overall goal of spreading the organization statewide.
“We are really excited to have it here,” Richards said. “It’s been a long journey to advance it to other parts of the state.”
Both Richards and Nolt manage the program by coordinating service and continuing education and would like to take more people on to coordinate each ecoregion.
For more details about the organization, visit https://pamasternaturalist.org/ and to find out about master naturalist training programs, visit https://pa masternaturalist.org/ become-a-master-naturalist/training-details.