You’ve Got What It Takes to Become a Master Naturalist

Combining coursework with volunteer opportunities, these training programs are a pipeline for local conservation leaders.
Two people standing among dense shrubs and trees inspect the leaves of a plant.
Monarch Larva Monitoring Program training hosted by the Wisconsin Master Naturalist Program. Photo: Astrid Newenhouse/Wisconsin Master Naturalist Program

It didn’t take new birder Ariana Remmel long to realize that to find more birds, it helps to know about the plants they need. So in 2022 Remmel signed up for the Arkansas Master Naturalist program and, sure enough, its courses on botany and ecology made their birding more fruitful.

What Remmel didn’t expect was that becoming a Master Naturalist would change their perspective on what it means to be a birder: More than just watching birds, it involves being a steward of their habitat, too. Today, with their new knowledge and skill set, “I am at home taking steps to protect birds,” they say, “putting my hands in the dirt.”

Most states have a Master Naturalist program that teaches participants about their environment and connects them with opportunities to become local leaders in hands-on conservation. The details vary, but each program shares basic tenets: Trainees participate in about 40 hours of classroom learning and fieldwork taught by local experts, then volunteer on conservation projects for roughly 40 hours each year. Check with your state university system, Audubon chapter, or other local environmental organizations to learn more about signing up, which typically costs a few hundred dollars. All levels of expertise and ability are welcome; the impressive-sounding name is the destination, not the starting point.

Many conservation groups have come to rely on Master Naturalists, especially when they need skilled volunteers to lead projects. “If you think of a nonprofit that has an outdoor component, they have Master Naturalists involved on their properties in some form,” says Uta Meyer, center manager at the Little Rock Audubon Center in Arkansas.

Participants often enroll in programs with a particular passion but quickly find their interests expanding. “Sometimes I call it being a slippery-slope naturalist,” says David Gorsline, a Virginia Master Naturalist since 2018. Gorsline came to the program for bird-related projects; today he volunteers on dragonfly surveys, invasive plant removals, and more.

Although Remmel, a science journalist, has a busy schedule, they’ve found time to meet the program’s training and volunteer requirements on the weekends. Along with the satisfaction of giving back, becoming a Master Naturalist has also enriched their time afield. “Even on a day that’s not very birdy,” they say, “it’s always very plant-y.”

Here are a few examples of how these versatile volunteers apply their skills to make their communities more bird-friendly.

River Rewilders

Jon Mathews—trained as a Master Naturalist by Golden Eagle Audubon Society and its partners—helps to lead an effort by those groups to address erosion and restore biodiversity along Idaho’s Boise River. The Boise River ReWild Project involves removing invasive plants and replacing them with species that belong on the site, with a goal of improving habitat for birds and other wildlife on more than 50 riverside acres. Since last year volunteers have planted thousands of native plants on the pair of half-acre plots he oversees.

Monarch Monitors

Master Naturalists trained at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Milwaukee had an idea that brought a new dimension to one of the center’s long-standing projects: Now, the naturalists and other volunteers not only monitor adult monarch butterflies, but also record eggs and larvae in milkweed patches to help scientists better understand population trends in an effort to save the insects.

Wildfire Watchers

In New Mexico, Master Naturalists trained at the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary are using their avian education to help the Forest Stewards Guild study how birds respond to wildfire management techniques. This past spring, they ventured into the Santa Fe National Forest to count songbirds within designated sites. They’ll return after forest thinning and prescribed burning, expected this fall, to see how the abundance and diversity of birds have changed. 

This piece originally ran in the Fall 2023 issue as “Natural Leaders.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.