Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Master Naturalists gaining support among young people in Arkansas


Masters of the biosphere

A corps of trained Naturalists bolster the state park system

By Bobby Ampezzan

Monday, November 30, 2009

LITTLE ROCK — Talking to Anne Massey of the fledgling Arkansas Master Naturalists must be something like meeting with Tom Hayden in Ann Arbor back in 1962, right after his Students for a Democratic Society held its first convention but before it really took off.

Don’t misunderstand - the Master Naturalists aren’t planning a sit-in beneath the Capitol dome. But the group’s president wants their ambition to be that infectious, and actually, she hopes “the government” will lean on it for assistance eventually.

“I was president of the Junior League of Little Rock,” says Massey, a woman who barely tips 100 pounds but whose favorite outdoor tool is a 6-foot pry for uprooting trees. “My expertise came from developing volunteers.”

The Central Arkansas Master Naturalists formed in 2005 under the auspices of Tom Neale, a longtime Texas Master Naturalist. Their mission is to serve public park systems through education, cleanups, biodiversity surveys, water monitoring and infrastructure projects such as trail building and maintenance. Massey was in Neale’s first Naturalists class in Arkansas.

“The first year [of Central Arkansas Master Naturalists], I took the class. The second year, I planned the curriculum. And ever since I’ve been opening new chapters.”

In January, she rallied recruits in Northwest Arkansas at the Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area, and in north-central Arkansas at Bull Shoals White River State Park. The first Northwest Arkansas class had 38 graduates.

Next January, she expects to schedule classes and open chapters in the Arkansas River Valley (including Petit Jean, Mount Nebo, Mount Magazine and Lake Dardanelle state parks) and at Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area. To do it she must have at least 15 interested people. Any fewer could be a waste of instructors’ time, she says.

This time, gathering such a quorum will try all of her organizing powers.


Last month, Massey and two of her favorite factotums, Bert Turner and Bill Toland, set off from the parking lot of Fresh Market in west Little Rock and made the mostly two-lane trip to the Cossatot River, just north of Dierks and De Queen.

At a McDonald’s, Turner set two travel mugs down on the counter and waited for coffee. An unwitting server placed two full styrofoam cups of joe next to the mugs.

“We were trying to save you two cups,” Turner barked. “We’re environmentalists!”

Were Turner a softer man, his admonition might have vanished amid the buzzers and popping grease. He is not. A retired Air Force captain,Turner is a veteran of Vietnam and Desert Storm. His words dance in the air like a hammer.

Later, in the car, a golf ball came bounding straight down the interstate as if launched from an overpass.

“More litter,” Massey said.

“Eighty percent of our litter is caused by 1 percent of the people, but only one-half percent of the rest do anything about it,” Toland mused. “You go back in Arkansas history, they didn’t have trash pickup” for much of the 20th century.

Welcome to this group. Other disappointments include privet, Japanese honeysuckle and the small and outdated Pinnacle Mountain State Park Visitors Center (compared to other state park visitor centers across the state).

Oh, there are plenty of delights, too. Just consider the great horned owl.

“Did you know the great horned owl is the only predator that will eat a skunk?” Toland asked the others.

This and other, probably more useful facts are all part of the billet. The Naturalists are a group of bookish outdoor enthusiasts who see the terrain as an organic museum and laboratory whose secrets need no more than a shout out from a trained guide.

That’s what they aim to be - trained guide, lab technician, museum curator.


To become a certified Master Naturalist, volunteers take at least 40 hours of in-depth natural science education on about 20 topics at Pinnacle Mountain State Park or nature centers throughout the state. (This year, there are 87 hours of instruction scheduled.)

In return, they agree to volunteer at least 40 hours in the community, at a state park or school, or for the Boy Scouts, 4-H or other youth groups. Volunteers can also put in their hours in activities like maintaining or building trails.

After their first year, Naturalists must complete 40 volunteer hours and eight advanced-training hours in each calendar year to remain certified.

This instruction isn’t like your high school trigonometry units. The classes have cool names like ichthyology, herpetology, entomology, mycology, and behind the Latin roots lurk the state’s official fish (volatilis cattuspiscis), the cottonmouth, the chigger, the psilocybin mushroom.

There’s instruction on the state parks system and Arkansas forest ecology, and survival classes such as how to build a shelter out of tree boughs before the feral dogs close in.

One of the chief duties Turner and Toland take on is trail building. With topographic maps, GPS and an inclinometer, the trailblazers set off along some public land and create a smooth walking trail where once there was only untrammeled forest floor.

“Most people think a trail is a [worn path],” Turner said. “What we focus on is making it sustainable. No puddles, erosion. There’s specification on the out-slope of the trail. It should be [a slope of] 5 to 6 percent so rain sheets off ... and 42 inches [wide] is what we shoot for.”

The two walk the proposed trail route several times. They might tweak the layout so it hugs an interesting rock outcropping. The hard work of building a trail includes raking and cutting away roots and unseating large rocks with the help of pry bars, and reshaping the sides of slopes with pickaxes.

Sound Herculean? It is in a way. Turner and Toland estimate that they can build a trail at a rate of 10 yards per man hour. When the two took on the 1.5-mile extension of the Pinnacle Mountain State Park base trail two years ago, it took three months and a team of volunteers.

“We get to see every animal, every plant, everything there is out there,” Turner said. “Tell you the truth, we get a lot of ‘Thank-yous’ out there.

“No, we do.”


At the Cossatot, Park Interpreter Steve Walker directs Massey, Turner, Toland and Ralph Weber of Bentonville along a switchback that leads from the visitor center down a couple of hundred feet to the river below. The trail’s covered with debris, and standing water also impedes hikers.

For a couple of hours the serenity among the Shumardoak and the bitternut hickory is broken by the blare of a backpack blower and the whir of a Stihl chain saw. The group rakes and chips at the ground, correcting the grade in places and smoothing it all out.

Does the park need a cadre of protectors, i.e., a Master Naturalists chapter of its own?

“No,” Walker says, “this area of the state just doesn’t have a lot going on, so we’re just trying to get stuff going on for the people.”

The park doesn’t need the work. It wants the interest.

Dorothy Cooney is interested. A 61-year-old Texas transplant, the Wickes resident called the potential kickoff of the Cossatot chapter “a well-kept secret.” For her, the volunteer duties are incidental.

“These classes, they are very detailed about the ecology of the area - animals, plants, weather, soil, water. I have a master’s degree, but the Master Naturalist program is one of the best classes I’ve ever had.”

When Toland retired in 2006 and settled in Little Rock, he intended to volunteer with Heifer International, a group with a mission he adores, but the work itself was unfulfilling.

“All of a sudden, there was an article about Master Naturalists in [the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette]. I thought, ‘This is exactly what I want to do.’ I sent in my application the very first day [for new class enrollment].

“This organization, there’s so many ... things to do you can’t get bored.”

Along with trail building, teams monitor for stream pollution, count birds and take deer surveys at night for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Naturalists lead schoolchildren into the woods and show them salamanders, snakes and crawdads - a kind of thrill Wii has yet to replicate.

The Bull Shoals White River State Park chapter is poised to record an entire inventory of plant and animal species in the river basin, says President Dwan Garrison, a project that will be a multi-year undertaking.

In the car on the ride home, Toland says that earlier this year, Texas Master Naturalists organization recorded its 1 millionth volunteer service hour. That group is twice as old - 10 - as this one, and has nearly three dozen chapters.

Massey says she hopes to add two chapters a year, an ambitious plan. And then, Toland says, “we can really start doing some serious things.”

Like holding sit-ins beneath the Capitol dome!

“Like a lot of activities with a lot of state parks to where the state park people, when they get together, they think of Master Naturalists as a vital part of their mission.”

Oh, cooperate with the Man. Right.

More information about Arkansas Master Naturalists’ new chapters and the training program is at home.arkansasmasternaturalists. org.

ActiveStyle, Pages 27 on 11/30/2009

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