Nurturing Natural Resource Volunteers: The Oregon Master Naturalist Backstory

Jill Bushakra is a returning Greenbelt Volunteer Naturalist who is dedicated to environmental education in our community. Jill is also an Oregon Master Naturalist– a hard-earned distinction achieved through countless hours of learning about our region’s natural resources and providing service to our community through public outreach and volunteerism. In this GLT blog post, Jill describes the Oregon Master Naturalist (OMN) program and includes interviews with OMN Program Coordinators, Jason O’Brien and Brandy Saffell. Read on to learn more about OMN and how you can get involved…

Jill Bushakra, GLT Volunteer Naturalist and Oregon Master Naturalist, taking photos of wildflowers on Mulkey Ridge.

What is an Oregon Master Naturalist (OMN)? A visit to the website HERE explains the mission and talks about the program. However, it doesn’t capture the dedication and commitment of the architects and participants. The amount of work that went into developing and implementing the program reflects the amount of time that participants invest in learning about the history, geology, landscape, management and usage of Oregon’s natural resources.

The impetus to begin the OMN program occurred when Dr. Jim Johnson came to Oregon State University as the Forestry and Natural Resources Extension Program Leader and Associate Dean of the College of Forestry in 2006. He was asked by the Dean of the College to research starting a Master Naturalist program in Oregon. They recognized the irony that a state so rich in natural resources should lack a program to help educate the public on the ways natural resources are used and managed, and to provide trained, knowledgeable volunteers to support natural resource agencies.

The Master Naturalist program had been implemented in 35 states, beginning with Texas in 1998. Dr. Johnson helped to draft the Master Naturalist program in Virginia at Virginia Tech. He began a fact-finding mission to explore what other programs around Oregon were doing. He brought in an advisor to discuss the components of the program and assembled an advisory committee of representatives from around the state. The advisory committee consisted of representatives from agencies such as the Siskiyou Field Institute, Metro’s Nature University, the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, and the Oregon Department of Forestry.

The goal of the committee was to craft a program that would minimize duplication, establish expectations, hire a program coordinator, and procure funding. Originally, the advisory agencies and others committed various levels of funding for three years. However, the 2008 financial crisis hit and the funding levels were cut. Additional funding was found from the Extension programs of Forestry and Natural Resources, Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, Sea Grant, and 4-H, who all committed to five years of financial support. The participating agencies all recognized the value of having a public educated on natural resources, as well as a science- and fact-based trained volunteer group to meet their program needs. As a result of this work, Dr. Johnson hired Jason O’Brien in 2009 as the Oregon Master Naturalist Statewide Program Coordinator to follow the Master Naturalist program model to train people to understand their natural surroundings and give back through service.

An Oregon Master Naturalist raft trip on the Willamette River with guide, Patricia Benner.

Jason completed his undergraduate degree at Iowa State University in Wildlife Ecology with an emphasis in natural resources interpretation and environmental and residential education. He earned his Master’s degree in Environmental and Residential Education from ISU. Jason and his team of curriculum developers have worked hard to establish the program on a shoe-string budget. Jason’s position is paid, but most of the help came from volunteers. They defined the eight Oregon ecoregions following a template adopted from the ODFW’s statewide conservation strategy, a Federally mandated document that identifies species of greatest conservation need to develop management plans for conservation. Course work has been developed for the Willamette Valley, East Cascades, Coast, and Northern Basin and Range. The Columbia River Gorge curriculum was introduced in 2017. Each ecoregion’s planning group (with input from OSU Extension faculty, State and Federal agencies, and local groups) developed a curriculum for their ecoregion depending on who was contributing and what topics were determined to be important for that ecoregion. The curriculum has evolved depending on experts available for a term. Some themes carry through, such as geology, the conservation challenges and vulnerabilities specific to the ecoregion, its unique habitats and ecosystems, and efforts that support, protect, and restore these ecosystems.

Brandy Saffell got involved with the OMN program in July 2015. She was working half-time for the Forestry and Natural Resources Extension in Columbia County as an invasive species program coordinator under Amy Grotta. Brandy’s other job was leading naturalist-guided tours in the Columbia River Gorge. Jim Johnson approached Amy Grotta about coordinating OMN on a local level. As most of the OMN graduates lived in and around the Portland Metropolitan region the area seemed like a good place to pilot a local program model. Brandy was hired half-time to work with Jason on developing a local program in the Portland area, consisting of an ecoregion course and chapter for program graduates. Brandy has a Master’s in Tree Physiology and Forest Health from OSU.

Program curricula and training development took two years (2009 – 2011), including the creation of the first of its kind Master Naturalist online course. The first online course was conducted in 2011, and the first class of 13 students graduated in 2012. To date, 130 participants have earned their OMN badges, with 25 naturalists completing course work for more than one ecoregion. Also, more than 200 organizations and agencies statewide have benefited from OMN volunteers.

The program is young and is still adapting to meet the needs of the participants. Some of the challenges to be considered include finding times that work for participants. Many are retired and spend weekends with family, while others are working and can only participate on weekends. Other challenges include local chapters vs. statewide coverage; funding; involving other partners; coordinating with agencies; and increasing the diversity of participants.

A course fieldtrip to Skinner Butte (Eugene) with instructor, Ed Alverson.

Now, Master Naturalist programs can be found in 42 states, with some states more active than others and in various stages of development. Each state adapts the model to fit their needs and funding availability.

I completed my online portion of the program in 2013, the field trip component in 2015 and earned my badge in 2016. I have enjoyed meeting with and learning from my fellow naturalists. Each has a different perspective and background and brings specialized knowledge to our events. Oregon Master Naturalists are nothing if not enthusiastic! At a recent chapter meeting held at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, Naturalists Pat and Bobbie Allaire presented on ways to engage kids with nature by using songs and humor. They challenged us to make up a song about being an OMN using “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as our tune.

Jason and Brandy make a great team. They keep us posted on upcoming opportunities for volunteering and continuing education. They listen to what works for us and implement procedures to accommodate our needs. Master Naturalists tend to be highly educated and outgoing and good story tellers. Every event is fun and informative. I recommend you check out what the program offers and consider becoming an Oregon Master Naturalist. You can check out a video of the program HERE. The OMN program has been nurturing natural resource volunteers since 2009.