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North Texas Ecology Course Creates A Team Of Master Naturalists

Miguel Perez
Rana Moore (left) and Stephanie Jennings sift through pond sediment during a Texas Master Naturalist class at the Heard Wildlife Sanctuary in McKinney, Texas.

In Texas, there's a group of trained volunteers so committed to caring for the state's natural areas, they're known as Master Naturalists.

The program is sponsored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and students have to go through an in-depth course to earn the title. 

The certification doesn't grant them with a degree or any official authority, but members of the Blackland Prairie chapter, which covers most of Collin County, say the goal is to better understand the region's natural history. 

The Holifield Science Learning Center in Plano is a wonderland for nature lovers like Greg Hayden. 

"We've got a very friendly raccoon right over there," he says. "We have a bearded lizard, a couple of geckos, and over on the other side, I know we have a beautiful bobcat."

He's at the center on a misty Saturday morning with dozens of students, who are all training to become Master Naturalists.

Texas Parks & Wildlife doesn't just dole out the title to anyone. It takes 13 three-hour classes, several field trips, and 40 hours of volunteer work.

After four months, the students graduate ... well, kind of. It's really just a title, but students say the distinction is much more than that.

It connects them with other people passionate about the outdoors. Many end up volunteering at nature centers, cleaning up waterways, planting trees and helping with other conservation efforts.

Hayden joined four years ago after reading about the program in a magazine.

"I'd worked in the corporate world all my life," Hayden says. "Not that that isn't meaningful, but it didn't feel very soulful, and so when I read the article, I thought that is going to be my calling. Aside from marrying my wife, maybe the best decision I've made in my life."

Now, he helps other students as they take classes in local plant and animal-life, geology and weather patterns.

Students meet every Wednesday at the Heard Wildlife Sanctuary in McKinney — rain or shine.

Credit Miguel Perez / KERA News
Texas Master Naturalist LuAnne Ray teaches students how to look for macroinvertebrates hiding in pond mud at the Heard Wildlife Sanctuary.

During a class on macroinvertebrates, they gather mud from a pond and dump it out onto trays. 

As part of her training, Rana Moore uses textbook images to spot freshwater critters hiding in the sediment.

"We got some dragonfly babies like these guys right here," she says. "We got a little shell of something here. Yeah, that does look like a crawdad."

Classes are often entertaining, but students like Holly Axe are also driven by a sense of concern.

"The environment needs to be protected and there needs to be more knowledge ... more information on how to protect what we have here because without all of these insects and different species, we won't survive."

Collin County isn't a big rainforest full of species on the brink of extinction, so it can be easy to overlook the impact of humans.

Reminding people of that impact is part of the Blackland Prairie chapter's mission. President Mike Roome says that mission is ingrained in the chapter's very name.  

"The Blackland Prairie was originally over 12 million acres," he says. "Now, it's less than one-tenth of one percent of that remnant prairie still left, and I understand why it's happening. We have a lot of population coming here, and that's a good thing economically. But, ecologically it's a challenge."

Roome says most of those grasses were uprooted to make way for crops, homes and roads. A 52-acre patch is the last significant piece of native Blackland prairie left in the county.

He clearly has a passion for the region's flora and fauna, but Roome hesitates to call himself an activist.

He sees himself and all the master naturalists more as stewards of the land, keen on sharing their understanding of how and why it's important to care for native species.

"They enrich our soil," Roome says. "They help improve our water quality, so I tell neighbors and friends, I did this. You you can do this to. You can plant native plants. Once you've got them growing, you don't have to water them or take care of them. Just let them do their thing."

People training to become Master Naturalists soak in all that regional knowledge. On top of that, they have to maintain their title with volunteer work and advanced training every year.

Credit Miguel Perez / KERA News
Students in the Blackland Prairie chapter of the Texas Master Naturalist program examine sediment at the Heard Wildlife Sanctuary in McKinney, Texas.

Students say there's an intrinsic benefit — it feels good to get outside, breathe in fresh air and make like-minded friends, but Roome says it's ultimately about passing on what they've learned to others. 

"I'm one voice and one person in one little local area," he says. "That's the reason it's becoming more important in my mind that we've got to get us as individuals on board. By bringing this swell from the ground up, then I think we can achieve things."

Spreading information about the natural history of the region may seem like a small act, but it has the potential to grow into something much bigger. 

Miguel Perez is an assistant producer at KERA. He produces local content for Morning Edition and KERA News. He also produces The Friday Conversation, a weekly interview series with North Texas newsmakers.