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Naturalist Group Has Environmental Focus
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Thirteen Coast volunteers have educated and prepared themselves under a new program to be specialists on landscape and natural history.
These people are Master Naturalists, a new volunteer program operated by the Mississippi State University Extension Service and sponsored by Chevron, U.S.A., Pascagoula Refinery. Dr. Mark LaSalle, Extension marine resources specialist, coordinates the program from the Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi.
"The program was developed to fill a growing need for trained individuals to assist with environmental education programs and events in coastal Mississippi and to help expand these efforts," LaSalle said.
Among many different projects, Master Naturalists make presentations in schools, have helped with Extension programs and Soil and Water Conservation Field Days. They conduct nature trail tours at the National Parks and the Sandhill Crane Refuge in Jackson County.
"These volunteers are of enormous value in developing and maintaining area nature trails and environmental monitoring programs," LaSalle said. "The Master Naturalists are currently developing nature trails at a power plant and at a Boy Scout camp."
Volunteers are trained in landscape information such as geology and hydrology, habitats and organisms that live in the landscapes. The 14-week course integrates this information on a wide range of topics.
"The program addresses key environmental issues, as well as connections and interactions of habitats and organisms on regional and global scales," LaSalle said. "The underlying theme of this training is that habitats exist and function as integrated parts of the landscape around us."
In return for the training, the Master Naturalists are asked to give 100 hours of voluntary service. Continuing education is also required to keep the Naturalists up to date.
"Many of our Master Naturalists have already met and exceeded their voluntary service requirement," LaSalle said.
The Master Naturalist Volunteer Program is a pilot effort started in 1998. As the training curriculum is being finalized, LaSalle said he hopes it will spread to other states. Twelve states have already expressed interest in establishing a Master Naturalist program in their area, he said.
Jeanne LeBow of Ocean Springs has been with the Master Naturalist program since it began.
"I got into the Master Naturalist group because I was interested in learning the plant species in Southern Mississippi," LeBow said.
Part of the purpose of the Master Naturalists was to provide a battery of volunteers to help with existing parks and programs. She has worked on several projects with the local schools, as well as at special events at the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in Gautier.
"When we give tours at the crane refuge, it frees up the biologist to check on the nesting birds that day," LeBow said.
Anyone interested in becoming a Master Naturalist should contact the Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi. Two training programs are being scheduled for 2000, one in Jackson and one on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Contact: Dr. Mark LaSalle, (228) 388-4710