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Rhonda J. Ferree

Rhonda J. Ferree
Former Extension Educator, Horticulture

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Rhonda Ferree's ILRiverHort

Rhonda Ferree's Horticulture Blog

Master Naturalists

Last week we graduated 19 Master Naturalists in our inaugural class. Students came from Fulton, Peoria, and Tazewell counties. Gayle Blodgett represented Fulton County and has great ideas for fulfilling her volunteer hours here.

The Master Naturalist (MN) program is new to our Fulton-Mason-Peoria-Tazewell University of Illinois Extension Unit. It is modeled after our extremely successful Master Gardener program. In both programs, volunteers receive over 60 hours of education and then volunteer that time back by working and educating others in their communities.

Master Naturalists learn all about our natural world. Their 10 week training program included classes on geology, soils, entomology, herpetology, mammology, wetlands, environmental ethics, and more. Classes were taught by local experts at various locations. Several classes were taught at Wildlife Prairie Park by their staff, where I even got to hold a snake!

The group often said, "I didn't know this was here." They learned from experts at Emiquon and Dickson Mounds Museum; learned how to restore prairie as a "Prairie Dawg" at Jubillee State Park; and witnessed Starhill Arboretum's amazing oak collection near Petersburg. They were amazed by the Jake Wolf Fish Hatchery, Sand Ridge State Forest, and Gleason Preserve in Mason County.

I also arranged for the group to visit Lakeland and Wallace parks in Canton. Canton Park director Jon Johnson discussed Lakeland's change from unclaimed strip mine ground to the beautiful park it is today. Spoon River College instructor Jeff Bash taught them about the role that agriculture plays in our environment and I showed them how to identify wildflowers.

The mission of the MN program is "to provide science-based educational opportunities that connect people with nature and help them become engaged environmental stewards." Volunteer activities could include monitoring wildlife and vegetation, conducting prescribed burns, managing trails, taking frog call counts, or monitoring weather.

As you can see, the Master Naturalist program is very broad in scope, with many possibilities for fulfilling volunteer activity hours. I chose to include the Canton parks for two main reasons: 1) to show the difference between a rural and urban park district and 2) to show other opportunities to fulfill hours. While walking around a couple trainees asked me about creating a bluebird trail at Lakeland Park and about doing bird counts there. Master Naturalists could also assist park staff to create prairie, do regular burns, monitor fish populations, assist with fishing events, help remove invasives, and so much more.

If this sounds like something you would love to do, consider being in our next Master Naturalist training class in fall 2013. Go to to learn more.

Until then, watch our new MN interns hard at work. You'll find them working with school groups at Wildlife Prairie Park, doing "Prairie Dawg" work at Jublilee State Park, and leading tours at Forest Park Nature Center in Peoria. Closer to home, you might find Gayle Blodgett working at the Spoon River College Arboretum or at Emiquon. MNs are "Helping Others Connect with Nature" all over central Illinois.

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