Wisconsin Master Naturalists volunteer to support Wisconsin’s natural resources

Wisconsin has abundant natural spaces accessible to visitors, including more than 60 state parks and more than 70 nature preserves. But that much natural space requires a lot of personnel support, which state parks and nature centers cannot always provide.

A program led through the University of Wisconsin-Extension and University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Environmental Resources Center is training a network of qualified volunteers to help meet that need.

Since 2013, the Environmental Resources Center has worked with state parks, nature preserves and other organizations to offer Wisconsin Master Naturalist trainings around the state. Master Naturalist volunteers provide service to help organizations meet their goals through education, stewardship and citizen science activities.

The Wisconsin Master Naturalist program works with 50 host organizations around the state. By the end of 2016, the program will have trained more than 500 volunteers.

Nearly $400,000 in volunteer time

Wisconsin Master Naturalist volunteers support the organizations they work with by monitoring different animal and plant activity, removing invasive species, maintaining trails and grasslands, and leading educational experiences for visitors.

In the first three years of the program, volunteers gave more than 17,000 hours valued at over $385,000 (a value determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Beyond the financial value of their time, volunteers perform an important outreach function.

“Volunteers create a stronger community connection to the organization, becoming more invested in the organization’s work,” says Becky Sapper, director of the Wisconsin Master Naturalist Program. “They often find additional ways to support the organization’s mission.”

Partnering organizations see the benefit in strong connections with Wisconsin Master Naturalist volunteers.

“Volunteers become great cheerleaders and marketers for our programs,” says Cable Natural History Museum naturalist Emily Stone. “They also become more active participants in our programs, which benefits our program numbers and our bottom line.”

Matching volunteers with nature organizations

At the UW-Stevens Point Schmeeckle Reserve, the Wisconsin Master Naturalist program provides extra support to the reserve’s goals.

“This program has served as an excellent outreach tool for attracting passionate, interested volunteers,” says Megan Espe, outreach coordinator at the Schmeeckle Reserve.

“By getting to know prospective volunteers through the 40-hour training, we are able to develop an understanding of their interests and skills so we can better match them with our needs, and they also get to know Schmeeckle Reserve, its facilities and programs, and its goals.”

Partnering organizations can also feel confident that the Master Naturalist training equips volunteers with the necessary knowledge and skills to take on conservation projects, lead educational programs and provide great experiences to visitors.

Benefits for volunteers

People trained as Master Naturalist Volunteers give at least 40 hours of volunteer time a year to nature organizations around the state, and complete eight hours of professional development every year. And the training provides volunteers with skills and connections that benefit their personal and professional lives.

“This training opens so many doors,” says Sharon Schaver, Wisconsin Master Naturalist volunteer at Riveredge Nature Center, Cable Natural History Museum and other organizations. “People at all levels— not just scientists, but people who spent years observing nature and are interested and passionate—are taking this training. We can go to organizations and point to this training that says we care enough to stay current, and we’re well-prepared to support your mission.”

For Master Naturalist volunteer Megan Karth, who works with Hartman Creek State Park, the program has been a gift.

“I’ve met other folks with diverse backgrounds and similar interests, and gotten to know more about the state park near my home,” she says. “The possibilities to learn are endless.”

UW-Extension Master Naturalist volunteer trainings are offered several times a year throughout the state. Learn more about the program and opportunities around Wisconsin at https://www.wimasternaturalist.org