Becoming a Master Naturalist

As funding drops for environmental education, conservation and science, one program is out to find and train volunteers to fill the gap.

“There’s an ever-increasing need for volunteers, particularly with revenue falling for environmental education programs,” said Kate Reilly. “It just seemed like the time was right for us to get involved where we’d have a statewide effort to provide a curriculum and a new standard for master naturalists.”

Reilly is director of the Wisconsin Master Naturalist program, a program designed to train natural resources volunteers around the state who will then volunteer locally.

Master naturalists have to take a 40-hour training course that covers geology, ecology, plants, wildlife, interpretation, water, aquatic life and human influences on nature in Wisconsin. Then, they’ll use the information to clock 40 volunteer hours in environmental education, citizen science or stewardship.

“Everybody needs people on the ground to be doing these kinds of programs,” said Karen Newbern, naturalist at The Ridges Sanctuary. “People want to learn about these things – I think a lot of people who take the program are doing it for their own benefit and want to know more about what’s around them in the natural world.”

Volunteer naturalist trainees learn about plant communities at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Master Naturalist program.

Newbern attended one of the Wisconsin Master Naturalist training sessions to learn how to put on a training session of her own. She hopes to schedule one in Door County next year.

“We’ve got a lot of potential volunteers. We’ve got a lot of people up here with time on their hands who want to make a difference and do something that’s effective,” Newbern said. “We have such a wealth of natural resources and so many organizations looking for those volunteers.”

The Ridges Sanctuary used to run a similar program focused more on Door County’s natural resources. Their program ran three years in a row and generated more than 50 well-trained volunteers.

“Ours was very focused on Door County, and the state’s program is going to be much more looking at the whole state,” Newbern said. “It will still have a little bit of a local focus, but it’s much more broad based and it’s a little bit more intensive. It’s a little more in-depth.”

A statewide program will give volunteers more opportunities to network, Reilly said. She hopes the Wisconsin Master Naturalist program will grow enough to have an annual conference, and plans to make social media pages that will help volunteers, natural resources experts and state officials connect.

The Wisconsin Master Naturalist Program is funded through the University of Wisconsin Extension and the Natural Resources Fund of Wisconsin, and a training course is scheduled for this fall in Saukville. For more information, visit