2009-03-25 / Front Page

Mother Nature's best friends

By Mark Battista

Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer Caroline Coe, a student in the Virginia Master Naturalists (VMN) program, and Keith Morrison, co-chair of the VMN Pocahontas chapter, look for birds during a recent field trip at Pocahontas State Park.
In "The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle" by Hugh Lofting, Dr. Dolittle queries Stubbins about his desire to be a naturalist:

"But now tell me, Stubbins, are you quite sure that you really want to be a naturalist?"

"Yes," said I, "my mind is made up."

"Well, you know it isn't a very good profession for making money. Not at all it isn't. Most of the good naturalists don't make any money whatsoever. All they do is spend money buying butterfly nets and cases for birds' eggs and things."

"I don't care about money," I said. "I want to be a naturalist."

Like Stubbins, you, too, can become a naturalist thanks to the Virginia Master Naturalist (VMN) program. According to the VMN Web site, "The Virginia Master Naturalist program is a statewide corps of volunteers providing education, outreach and service dedicated to the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within their communities. Interested Virginians become master naturalists through training and volunteer service." "The program was started in Virginia due to a need to better engage the citizenry in natural resource education and conservation efforts," says Michelle Prysby, VMN program coordinator. "Virginia's natural resources are threatened (e.g., loss of forestland, pollution in the critical estuarine habitats of the Chesapeake Bay, many threatened wildlife species), and Virginia's natural resource agencies need the help of Virginians in solving these issues."

Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer Birding instructor John Coe gives instructions before master naturalist students venture out into Pocahontas State Park for a field trip.
The progress of the VMN program is noteworthy. Twenty-five chapters have launched since its inception in 2006, including one here in Chesterfield. The Pocahontas chapter has 30 students enrolled. They are a varied lot, and their reasons for joining are just as diverse.

There's Grace Suttle, a retired physician, who says, "I've always been a nature enthusiast,.. and I like to learn more and more about it."

Suttle adds, "It's also being involved in volunteer programs. In other words, we'll be working with other local nature programs, volunteer groups, taking nature walks...I'm interested in doing things like that."

Then there's Mike Schlosser, retired actuary, who is passionate about dedicating his time to the community. "I retired in 1998, and since then, I've done volunteer work with Richmond Hill, my church and Westover Hill Elementary School," shares Schlosser.

He joined the Pocahontas chapter after becoming intrigued by a story on the VMN program mentioned in the Virginia Outdoor Report.

Amber Ellis, a landscape architect with Timmons Inc., elaborates, "The whole reason I became a landscape architect is because I cared about our natural resources, and I wanted to be able to create landscapes to educate people, so I figured this would be a great way to get the education and hands-on experience."

To enroll in the VMN program, candidates must complete an application and pay tuition ranging from $100-$125. To become a certifi ed master naturalist, students must complete 40 hours of coursework in a variety of outdoor topics that would make any would-be naturalist salivate. The coursework includes both classroom lecture and fieldwork. Second, students completing the course are expected to take an additional eight hours of advanced training, and lastly, students must engage their new skills by volunteering for a minimum of 40 hours.

Though participants don't have Dr. Dolittle as a mentor, there is plenty of expertise available in the various disciplines. Local experts from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Department of Forestry and the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries may lend their insight. Instructors are even rounded up from local colleges, parks and clubs, such as the Audubon Society.

The coursework is varied and intriguing. Students dabble in topics such as ecology, botany, dendrology (the study of trees), Virginia

biogeography (species distribution), herpetology (reptiles and amphibians), entomology (insects) and even receive a "crash course" in interpretive skills.

The 2007 annual report reports that 491 volunteers were trained statewide with 93 becoming certified as master naturalists. The master naturalists in turn volunteer their time, sharing and using what they've learned. They have presented roughly 215 programs, and performed 93 citizen science projects and 212 stewardship projects. Some have conducted interpretive programs at state and county parks. Some have blazed trails and compiled species lists. In conjunction with the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, master naturalists have done water quality monitoring and participated in stream cleanups. They even assist researchers in area bird counts and frog and toad surveys. Monetarily, the value of their projects total about $139,576.

Want to become a naturalist?

Visit, and check the local chapters to see when the next naturalist training will be scheduled. Typically, chapters schedule just one training per year. Applications and registration information will also be available through the Web site. For registration and general information about the Pocahontas chapter, call Caroline Garmon at 796-4472.

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