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Masters of Nature

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Linda McDowell can’t help herself. When she meets a kindred spirit in the great outdoors – whether she’s snowshoeing or hiking – she often finds herself delivering the same spiel.

“If they’re talking about how much they love the bosque or love being in the mountains, I always say, ‘Do you know there’s a program you can go into (to study that)?’ ” McDowell said.

That would be Bernalillo County’s Master Naturalist Program and McDowell, a retired teacher, is a proud graduate of its first class. En route to her certificate, McDowell completed 55 hours of education and training on everything from hydrology to geology. Unlike similar programs around the country that charge, Bernalillo County’s version doesn’t cost participants any money. But to reciprocate, participants must devote at least 40 hours to a service project. Many, like McDowell, spend far longer than that because they become so immersed in the work.

“This has really reconnected me with what a treasure we have here, the environment here,” McDowell said.

Bernalillo County began the program in 2010 as a three-year pilot project, but coordinator Colleen McRoberts said it has proven so popular that it is sure to continue beyond this year. There is hope that other entities will begin similar programs throughout the state, McRoberts said.

The Bernalillo County program – currently accepting applications for the 2012 session – typically has more interested candidates than spots. The application procedure involves an interview process that helps whittle the pool down to the final 25 participants.

Students don’t need to be science experts but are expected to have some interest in the natural world.

“We hope that people who come into the program have already shown some kind of prior passion or interest in the natural world because that means they’ll probably continue on,” McRoberts said. “We really see these master naturalists, once they graduate, they’re mentors in a way, a resource in our community.”

Between classroom sessions and the hands-on lessons that take place at Open Space properties, participants learn a little bit about a wide range of topics, including hydrology, geology, ecology, soils, and flora and fauna of New Mexico. They also dabble in environmental education and interpretation as well as nature journaling.

The courses are taught by hand-selected experts in the various fields, often on a volunteer basis.

“We get top-notch instructors all the time,” said Stephanie Long, a graduate of the 2010 program. “It’s not somebody who knows a little bit about the topic shows up and presents a class. It’s like one of the best university-level survey classes you can take.”

Now retired, Ricardo Avila-Carbajal was teaching elementary school at the time he went through the program in 2010 and said becoming a Master Naturalist made him better at his job, especially when it came to science curriculum and creative field trip ideas.

Also, he added with a laugh, “I was really weak in identifying plants and animals – seriously. It is really exciting now to be able to walk into a park or something and I can identify plants in there.”

While Bernalillo County doesn’t charge for the Master Naturalist curriculum, it gets repaid via participants’ work on service projects.

Avila-Carbajal, for example, helped with the county’s Junior Master Gardener program, while Long studied the bear population at Bernalillo’s Ojito de San Antonio Open Space.

McDowell also focused on Ojito de San Antonio, conducting research to determine the best way to control poison ivy in the area. Her overarching goal was to help allay some of the fears people have about spending time outdoors.

“My real passion is bringing families and very young children into nature, (addressing) the nature deficit disorder we’re experiencing (because) technology and fear are keeping families and young children from connecting and really becoming future guardians of these area,” McDowell said.

Langan said the program’s first-year students had leeway in picking their project, but the county has since refined the system so that participants have more direction and are steered toward jobs that will assist Bernalillo County or sites like the Rio Grande Nature Center or Sandia Mountain Natural History Center. Examples of Master Naturalist projects developed to help county Open Space include an assessment of tree health at Bachechi Open Space, water quality testing and vegetation monitoring within the county’s East Mountains properties, and the development of a naturalist curriculum for fifth-graders visiting Open Space.

“Other states charge a lot of money to be in this program, and we’re providing it for free,” McRoberts said. “They get a lot out of it, but they really do give us a lot by being really dedicated volunteer. It’s really a win-win.”

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