Trees for Tomorrow hosts the Wisconsin Master Naturalist program: a lifelong adventure
Story and photos by Lori Adler
Educator, steward, citizen scientist, and student of natural history are all roles of a naturalist. Recently, people of varying ages, backgrounds and hometowns gathered at Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River to train to fulfill these roles as part of the Wisconsin Master Naturalist program.
The program brought people from all over the state to the Northwoods for a week-long session that included 40 hours of indoor and outdoor coursework plus a capstone project. Upon completion, these Certified Master Naturalists are equipped to tackle complex volunteer opportunities including interpretation and education (leading a nature walk or creating interpretive displays), stewardship (trail maintenance or stream bank restoration), and citizen science projects (animal counts or invasive plant monitoring). Once the program is completed and in order to remain certified, Master Naturalists are expected to volunteer in some capacity at Wisconsin state parks, recreation areas, or nature centers for at least 40 hours each year. They are also required to get an additional eight hours of advanced training annually. Becoming a Master Naturalist is a lifelong adventure.
Though conducting a training of this nature has been part of the Trees for Tomorrow strategic plan, this was the first year the course was conducted at the center. Two educators on the Trees for Tomorrow staff, Jenny Sadak and Melanie Stewart-Clarke, worked for a year in preparation of the training. Jenny explains that the program took “extensive planning, collaborating, and organization.” While there are set standards for the training, Jenny points out that there was still a great deal of work to be done, adding, “We planned the format and structure of the course, how the key concepts for each section should be delivered, which field sites to visit, contacted and collaborated with our guest speakers and instructors, handled logistics, and everything in between.”
Jenny and Melanie conducted some parts of the training themselves, but the majority of the coursework came from guest instructors. Those participating in the training were treated to lectures and demonstrations from a geologist, forester, conservation specialist, wildlife biologist, and water resource specialist among others. Participants attended lectures, went on interpretive hikes, canoed, identified plants, and banded birds, all as part of the learning process. In addition, all these activities took place at some of the best natural areas in the Northwoods, including Fallison and Kentuck Lakes, Thunder Lake Marsh, and Sylvania Wilderness Area.
Though many participants had some prior knowledge before taking part in this course, Jenny notes that many have knowledge in one or two areas, so this overall training helps to “expand basic knowledge” and to “understand how all of nature’s pieces work and fit together,” which in turn helps the trainees learn how to communicate that to others, an important skill for volunteers. To further enhance these skills, throughout all the different sections in the course, there were opportunities to practice ways to better educate people of all ages. The volunteers played games and learned a variety of teaching techniques.
The course culminated with a capstone project completed by participants either individually or in groups. Projects included building bat and bird houses, taking photographs for brochures, and creating interpretive games. The course was intense and strenuous for instructors and participants alike. Many of the Wisconsin Master Naturalist programs are conducted over several months rather than
a week-long session, but total immersion into the subject matter is a good way to learn for many, allowing for few distractions. Though exhausted from the experience, perhaps, all the participants appeared to have enjoyed their time at Trees for Tomorrow.
Jenny and Melanie appreciate their role in bringing people together from all over the state to learn about conserving Wisconsin’s natural resources and educating others to do the same, but they know they simply could not have accomplished such a task alone. In addition to assistance from other Trees for Tomorrow staff, help came from those in the Wisconsin Master Naturalist office as well as others who had previously conducted similar trainings. Jenny notes, “We had so much help from the folks down in Madison as well as other organizations that have experience hosting a training course;” adding, “it takes a village for sure!”
The Wisconsin Master Naturalist program conducts training sessions all across the state. Trees for Tomorrow hopes to continue hosting the Master Naturalist program in the future. For more information on the program, visit wimasternaturalist.org. For more information on Trees for Tomorrow, visit treesfortomorrow.com.
Meet Vern and Danielle: the newest Wisconsin Master Naturalists
When Trees for Tomorrow decided to host a Wisconsin Master Naturalist program, two staff members, Danielle Christensen and Vern Gentele, took advantage of this unique opportunity to take part in the course.
Both Danielle and Vern are environmental science educators at Trees for Tomorrow. Danielle, who has been with Trees for Tomorrow since 2017, is both the school program and animal care coordinator, scheduling school visits and taking care of the campus animals used for teaching and demonstrations. Vern has been on staff for almost four years and is the assistant education manager. In addition, Vern coordinates summer interns as well as the natural resources career exploration programs held on campus.
Though heavily involved in educating others on environmental topics, both Danielle and Vern expressed a desire to learn more. And while both live in the Eagle River area, a chance to further their knowledge on Northwoods plants and animals was equally appealing.
Danielle originally started with a career as a history instructor, so while she has a background in teaching, she does not have any formal training in natural resources. She feels that being immersed in a week-long course where she could glean information on so many different topics is a great way to build her knowledge base. In addition, Danielle explains, the field experiences offered by the Master Naturalist program will be really interesting, adding “As a teacher, it’s really nice to be learning these things outside of the classroom.”
Vern always had an interest in fish and wildlife management, but when he first started his career, jobs in that field were scarce. So instead, Vern became an elementary school teacher. Eventually though, he was ready for a change and returned to college to obtain an associate degree in natural resources. Vern feels the hands-on approach the Master Naturalist program offers will be helpful when he teaches those topics to others, noting that he is looking forward to “getting outside and experiencing first-hand and then being able to pass that on to someone else.”
Both Danielle and Vern were able to leave their jobs behind and take the week to really learn and absorb the many topics presented as part of the Master Naturalist program. They participated in the classroom lectures and discussions and took advantage of the field experiences and opportunities to visit many different natural areas. The week was packed with information, excitement, and inspiration.
Vern really enjoyed the people he met and the camaraderie created within the group throughout the week-long program, but he feels his biggest take-away is realizing that being an effective volunteer and instructor does not require endless knowledge, just a desire to learn, noting, “you need to have an inquiring mind.” There will always be questions, but Vern explains, “If you don’t know the answer right away, there are sources and people to fill in the gaps.”
Danielle enjoyed the many experiences the program provided, especially appreciated the field opportunities. “Bird banding, expert interpretive hikes, local water resource experts,” Danielle explains, “all helped open my eyes to more issues in my own back yard.” She adds, “The course definitely met my expectations and then some.” Stating that she was both “surprised and awed,” Danielle notes that the course left her “feeling empowered.”
While this was the first time Trees for Tomorrow hosted the Wisconsin Master naturalist program but hopes to continue into the future. The organization also hopes to continue to surprise, awe and empower future naturalists, guests and visitors.