How Did the Master Naturalist Program Get Started?
Reflections by Judit Green, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department
Back in the summer of 1996, Debbie Reid along with Mary Cafferini, both who worked at Friedrich Wilderness Park with the San Antonio Parks & Recreation Department, met with Rufus Stephens and myself, Judit Green, the two urban biologists with Texas Parks & Wildlife Department about some ideas. Debbie, who had once worked with many of the Master Gardener volunteers, as well as others, had heard many of them imply that they had a strong wish to work with natural resources, but that there were no such programs that offered intensive training like that offered by the Master Gardener program. And thus a seed was planted.
We had the support from our agency directors such as Ron Smudy with San Antonio Parks & Recreation Department and John Herron with Texas Parks & Wildlife Department for us to dedicate time to the creation and development of this new program. In addition we received grant monies from Mark Peterson through the Texas Forest Service to start up the program. These agencies turned out to be the local San Antonio sponsors for the first Master Naturalist class in the state, now known as the Alamo Area Master Naturalist Chapter (the founding chapter).
Our first attempt was to try to get natural resource classes incorporated into the existing Master Gardener program. However we wanted the natural resource training to receive ample coverage, and since the Master Gardener program was already lengthy and well established, they were unable to offer us the time we felt we needed to cover the subject matter we felt was important. So we decided to create a program with a similar model to the Master Gardener program (ie, offer training to volunteers who in turn would claim their community hours in order to receive and maintain their certification).
Since we were now on a path to creating the newly named Master Naturalist program, we were excited that we would be able to offer an array of classes and dedicate a great deal of time to a multitude of subjects, especially those focused on local natural resources, that we felt would be important to teach future volunteers. Of course, we needed help from the many resource specialists in the community to help write the various chapters of the first Master Naturalist Handbook. They, along with assigned volunteers to their team, came together under one roof on a Saturday in the fall of 1996 to start work on their chapters.
In addition, we enlisted the help of Natural Initiative group members to support this new program. Natural Initiatives, a program that had existed since 1994 and fell under the umbrella of the Bexar Audubon Society, consisted of individuals representing different local agencies and organizations with common natural resource goals. We often came together to brainstorm about ways to reach the community with natural resource related events and projects and were all too familiar with the shortage of help to adequately fulfill that need. So Natural Initiative members quickly realized the importance of the Master Naturalist program and helped to sponsor it from the beginning.
Although ambitious, we planned to start the first Master Naturalist class in the spring of 1997. The first class was held at Friedrich Wilderness Park and chapters of the handbook, which were literally hot off the press, were passed out to class members at the beginning of each class. Many of the resource specialists, who had helped write the handbook, were also teaching the classes.
In 2007, when we celebrated 10 years of Master Naturalists in Texas, all I could think of was, “Amazing!” That first meeting offered up an idea. From that idea emerged a willingness of others to join forces to make the Master Naturalist program a reality. Make no mistake, there have been many, many people from the time of inception to this very day that made it and continue to make it a very important program in our state, as well as in the nation. Many of those people are Master Naturalist volunteers. This program was started because there was a need—a need for volunteers to help bring awareness and appreciation of natural resources to their communities. The Master Naturalist program has done just that! Master Naturalists are truly an asset to our communities!
In my profession as a biologist, there are times when I feel overwhelmed in the attempt to reach the mass number of people in my city. But then there are times when my day is brightened because I have a volunteer contact me who is passionate about a particular project or I visit a city and look in their local paper only to see that they are announcing their newly founded area Master Naturalist program. I am uplifted because I know there are people who are there to back me up, as well as others, and in many cases will take the lead and run with it. Even reflecting on the beginnings of the Master Naturalist program gives me encouragement. Look how far we have come! Truly Amazing!