Master Naturalists needed to preserve state’s environment

By Sharita Forrest
U of I News Bureau

CHAMPAIGN — Adults who have a passion for the outdoors – and are interested in sharing that with others – are needed statewide as volunteers in the University of Illinois Extension Master Naturalist program.

The program educates residents about Illinois’ natural resources, and connects them with volunteer opportunities to assist with environmental conservation and restoration activities, as well as public education events, throughout the state.

Master Naturalist volunteers receive about 70 hours of instruction and field study, which familiarizes them with Illinois’ ecosystems and animals, and with techniques for managing natural areas and teaching others about environmental issues.

Outdoor enthusiasts Thom Uebele, a research programmer with the School of Life Sciences, and his wife, Jana, went through Master Naturalist training in Champaign last fall. The couple was inspired to enroll in the training program to learn more about the natural wonders they had seen during a recent vacation they spent hiking the River-to-River Trail across Southern Illinois.

“The Master Naturalist training is an excellent way to get an overview of what makes up Illinois’ natural environment,” said John Marlin, an entomologist and research affiliate with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. Marlin manages the Florida Orchard Prairie, next to the President’s House on Florida Avenue, and other demonstration gardens on the Urbana campus as part of his volunteer service as a Master Naturalist.

U. of I. Extension sponsors 22 Master Naturalist groups across the state, and according to the program’s coordinator, Rhonda Ferree, this small army of eco-minded volunteers – currently 600 strong – is vital to Illinois’ conservation efforts.

“Master Naturalists not only help others connect with nature in their local communities, their land stewardship work restores habitats for pollinators and more, thus preserving our environment for future generations,” Ferree said.

In cooperation with other groups, Master Naturalists have removed invasive plant species from public land, including Chicago’s Palmisano Park, a 27-acre site with a storied history as a limestone quarry and landfill; and the 40-acre Adams Wildlife Sanctuary in Springfield, current headquarters of the Illinois Audubon Society.

“Master Naturalists have turned this parcel around,” said Illinois Audubon Society executive director Tom Clay. “We still battle our invasives – because land stewardship is forever – but Master Naturalists help us continue to beat back what doesn’t belong and to nurture what does belong.”

Master Naturalist volunteers have been instrumental as well in helping Illinois Audubon Society restore purchased land before transferring ownership to state and local agencies. And these volunteers are vital to the organization’s mission of providing educational and outreach programming, said Jo Fessett, Clay’s assistant.

“We have a core group of Master Naturalists who are retired teachers and love helping the groups of schoolchildren who come through,” said Fessett, who collaborated with Extension and other nonprofits to develop the area’s Master Naturalist program, and provides some of the training.

Master Naturalists often assist state scientists with conducting the mussel survey, an ongoing assessment of water quality based on the mussel population in the Sangamon River and other waterways. And at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland, Master Naturalists, like Jerry Hossli of Chicago, currently are helping construct a bird sanctuary.

“Given the state of Illinois’ financial challenges, more and more we have to rely on volunteers and the private sector to do the land-protection work that people used to rely on state or local government organizations to do,” Clay said.

As part of his Master Naturalist service, Hossli also frequently provides watershed demonstrations that teach youth and adults about pollution. Through the Inquiry Adventures Program, a joint initiative of Extension and the Cook County Forest Preserve District, Hossli leads inner-city youth – many of whom have never ventured beyond their own neighborhoods – on scientific investigations in the county’s forests.

To maintain their certification as Master Naturalists, volunteers have numerous options for fulfilling the 30-hour requirement of annual volunteer service. Susan Atchley’s fascination with owls prompted her to develop two educational programs on the birds, which she presents to schoolchildren and groups of adults in her area.

“There are so many cool things you can study and learn about, and the Master Naturalist program helps us translate that and inform the people of Illinois, which we hope will lead to appreciation and conservation,” said Atchley, a resident of Sterling and vice-chair of the group’s statewide advisory board.

For Atchley, and Jana and Thom Uebele, the volunteer work is fulfilling, but the most satisfying aspect of their involvement with the Master Naturalist program is the friendships they’ve developed with other people who share their love of nature.

Jana Uebele’s advice to people who are interested in becoming Master Naturalists: “Be prepared to have your life changed in the best possible way.”

Master Naturalist training will be offered by some Extension offices and partnering agencies in coming weeks. For information and application materials, go to web.extension.illinois.edu/mn/.

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