Florida Master Naturalist Program immerses participants in natural world
by Stacey Matrazzo
Are you passionate about Florida’s natural environment? Would you like to know more about Florida’s native plants and animals and the ecosystems they inhabit? Consider becoming a Florida Master Naturalist, an adult education program designed to “promote awareness, understanding, and respect of Florida’s natural world.” The program is offered through the University of Florida/IFAS Extension offices and other organizations throughout the state, and is open to anyone age 18 or over who is interested in increasing their knowledge of Florida’s natural systems.
The Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) was established in 2001 by Dr. Martin Main of the University of Florida. He created it out of a desire to build a stronger conservation network in Florida. Main recognized the need for a training program that would help people better understand Florida’s diverse flora and fauna – a program that would help build a workforce of educated naturalists. “More importantly,” Main said, “I wanted to create a program that would be meaningful to someone like myself.
“One of the most rewarding things about the program is when people tell me that they’ve gone through it and that it’s meant something to them personally,” said Main, who is passionate about the program. “Hundreds of people have told me that it’s changed their lives. It’s opened their eyes to nature in ways they’d never imagined.”
FMNP consists of three core modules: Freshwater Wetlands, Coastal Systems and Upland Habitats. Each module is 40 contact hours consisting of classroom learning, field trips to nearby natural areas, and practical experience facilitated by trained instructors who use science-based information and interpretive techniques to prepare students to share their knowledge with others. With each module, students receive a detailed course manual and upon completion, a certificate, patch and pin denoting the area of expertise (e.g., Wetlands Master Naturalist). Students who complete all three modules become Florida Master Naturalists and receive a plaque, pin and registration in the online Master Naturalist Honor Roll Database.
According to Main, about 33 percent of program graduates are industry professionals — environmental consultants, natural resource managers, wildlife biologists, eco-tour guides, environmental lawyers, etc. — while the other 67 percent are simply people interested in nature. The program boasts over 1,000 graduates per year, with more than 6,000 certificates having been awarded and over 1,000 certified Master Naturalists since the program’s inception.
“Participation in the Master Naturalist program should be required of all Floridians,” said Lisa Roberts, Florida Wildflower Foundation executive director, who earned a place on the FMNP Honor Roll in 2009. “It does an incredible job of immersing participants in the workings and inhabitants of Florida’s ecosystems through studies, projects, hand’s on field trips and knowledgeable speakers.”
The benefits of the program are far-reaching. Teachers are using it in their classrooms. Civic professionals such as lawyers and county commissioners are using it to help them make better decisions with regard to land-use policies. Even golf course administrators have used it to make improvements to their facilities. Main also said that many eco-tourism businesses have started as a result of the program, and many will only hire Master Naturalists as guides. “So the program is even facilitating economic opportunities,” according to Main.
“The most important role of the graduates, Main said, “is to send a message to people to get engaged to the extent that they can. Volunteer at a nature center, chaperone a school field trip, talk to kids about anything you want to talk to them about. Just let people know how valuable our natural resources are.”
For more information on the Florida Master Naturalist Program including current course listings and locations, visit www.masternaturalist.org.
PULL QUOTE: “The master naturalist program gave me a better understanding of and greater appreciation for all the things I love about Florida! The course materials are also a wonderful addition to my resource library.” — Dixie Tate, FMNP Honor Roll, 2009